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Edmund Spenser meets Jacques Derrida: On the Travail of Systems
by Gordon Teskey

Hadfield, Andrew. Edmund Spenser: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. xxi + 624 pp. ISBN 978-0199591022. $40.50 cloth.

Benoît Peeters. Derrida: A Biography. Trans. Andrew Brown. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013. vii + 629 pp. 978-0745656151. $24.60 cloth. First published in French as Derrida. Paris: Flammarion, 2010. 740 pp. ISBN 978-2081214071. $44.20 cloth. 


The present text is not a review of the two biographies listed above. It is instead a reflection on the similarities between the authors treated in them, similarities thrown into relief by the accident of publication close to each other in time. If it is indeed altogether accidental: at the outset of the twenty-first century, literary biography seems to be on the rise as a genre. It has certainly overcome the disrepute into which it fell—along with historically grounded literary studies in general—in the nineteen-seventies and ’eighties. As I shall have little to say in detail about these books here—my assignment, as I shall shortly explain, is a different one—I wish to signal my admiration and gratitude for both. One is the first modern scholarly biography in well over half a century of the greatest English narrative poet of the Elizabethan age, Edmund Spenser. (Alexander Judson’s excellent but much shorter biography was published in 1945.) About a decade in the making, Andrew Hadfield’s biography takes Spenser scholarship and criticism to a new level.

The other is a more popular biography of Jacques Derrida by the novelist Benoît Peeters, three heroic years in the making, including hundreds of interviews and mountains of documents. In the same year his biography appeared, Peeters published an autobiography about writing that biography: Trois ans avec Derrida: les carnets d’un biographe (Paris: Flammarion, 2010). The legacy of Derrida’s philosophical work is controversial, and Peeters is a partisan, but he has no intention of interpreting the work in depth. That is a reasonable decision, given the complexity of the task of writing Derrida’s life. Even so, a popular or trade book in France, especially a biography, is a different thing from what a trade book often is in the English-speaking world, and is closer to scholarly study. One thinks of Didier Eribon’s biography of Michel Foucault and Annie Cohen-Solal’s of Sartre. Any serious biography is condemned to trying to square the circle: to making the work coincide with the life and the life with the work. Yet the motive for doing the work is to escape life’s insistence on always coinciding with itself, that is, on life’s being present to itself, brutally and simply. Derrida called this escape la différance [sic], and Spenser called it faerie. What follows is an attempt to justify this, as it may seem, arbitrary and violent conjuncture.

My assignment—the brainchild of my friend David Lee Miller—is to reflect on these authors together and if possible on “life-writing,” biography, the art of squaring the circle. I will not speculate why David thought I should do this, or why it should be done. One simply does what one is asked to do by a friend, even if that particular directive is not apparent in the most confused book of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the Legend of Friendship. A philosophical interest in friendship is not the only point of similarity between Edmund Spenser and Jacques Derrida. Each is in his own way a master of differing, delaying, and deferral, as Patricia Parker was the first to observe when she spoke of temporal delay and spatial deferral in Renaissance narrative generally, and in The Faerie Queene in particular. What these biographies show is that in their lives, as in their work, Spenser and Derrida were consummate outsiders, or, as it were, outside-inners, players on the margins looking toward the center of the system with mixed hostility and desire.


Edmund Spenser died in London, in January 1599, at (most probably) 47 years of age; Jacques Derrida in Paris at 74, in October 2004. (There is no significance I can discern to their numerical ages at death being mirror images.) Spenser was a Londoner, of humble or lower middling status, but a graduate of the Merchant Taylors’ School and of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Accomplished in languages, including Greek (less common in his day than Milton’s), a translator of Du Bellay, a reader of Italian romances and Italian critical theory, Spenser was also a cutting edge, experimental poet who raised English verse to a new standard in 1579 with the publication of The Shepherds Calendar, just before his departure for Ireland in 1580, where for a time he participated in advanced, continentally-orientated intellectual circles. His great work, The Faerie Queene—published in two installments, 1590 and 1596, plus a final portion appearing in 1609, a decade after his death—raised the standard again, just as the rules of the game were being changed by Donne, Hall, Marston, Chapman and Jonson, to mention only the most prominent figures.

Most of Spenser’s creative years were spent to his chagrin not at court but in various colonial offices in Ireland—very comfortably and profitably so (he could never have held property like Kilcolman in England), until disaster overtook him and the entire Munster Plantation (Hadfield 403). At his death, less than five years before the end of Elizabeth’s long reign, he was out of touch with new literary fashions in the metropolitan center and incapable—or unwilling—to adapt to them, although the Complaints volume, the end of Book Six of The Faerie Queene, and the Mutabilitie Cantos do reflect the soured spirit of the times. But Spenser’s reputation was preeminent. He was for the English “our Homer.” On the poetic map of the following century Spenser would be a revered but quite irrelevant figure, notwithstanding a school of “Spenserians.” In the eighteenth century, starting with the publication of John Hughes’s edition in 1715 and accelerated by the gothic revival, Spenser’s reputation would begin to climb again to a place just below that of Milton and Shakespeare, and that is where it would remain for about two and a half centuries, although that preeminence would be challenged by the great romantics, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats—who revered him.

Derrida started from the periphery and made his way to the center, like so many Algerian intellectuals in France. He was a francophone Algerian Jew and a normalien (a graduate of France’s elite Ecole normale supérieur), and all four were important to him. But instead of following the usual cursus honorum of the French academic system, rising by degrees to its apex, the Collège de France (one learns from Peeters that Derrida’s unique style of writing and philosophizing were already controversial when he was a student), he became instead the first global philosopher of the electronic age, his fame surpassing that of Sartre, the last global philosopher of the age of newspaper journalism. Yet to the end, even as he was being considered for the Nobel Prize, to which he was indifferent (it went instead to Elfriede Jelinek), Derrida regretted his non-acceptance in the French academic establishment, which had been the goal of his life. He never achieved indifference to the not entirely incomprehensible objections to his work by academic philosophers elsewhere, especially after the publication of Glas, and, like his followers, tended to dismiss these as motivated by darker political forces (Peeters 539 and 445-6). In this he resembled the one hero of his he never felt the need to deconstruct: Walter Benjamin. What hurt most was the discourtesy and intemperance—at times shocking, at other times comically uninformed—with which objections to his work were expressed in some quarters. It made Derrida perhaps a little thin-skinned, after the contretemps with John Searle, and especially after the De Man affair. After saying too much about the latter, he wisely changed the subject, and his work took its well-known political and ethical turn. His more sequacious followers, in the nature of followers, were disdainful of polite interrogation, and terrified of plain speaking, such as Foucault’s characterization of Derrida’s philosophical style as obscurantisme terroriste (“terrorizing obscurantism,” because if one attempts to debate or even to paraphrase one does not understand, and is a fool). On the other side, the loudest voices crying down Derrida were intemperate and as is usually the case with intemperance, unfamiliar with the work. As Leland de la Durantaye remarked, the twentieth century opened with a bright-eyed, courteous, small-statured philosopher lecturing in Paris on some remote, technical problems of philosophy, who was decried as a corrupter of the young, and as bringing on the end of western civilization. That was Henri Bergson. The twentieth century ended the same way, with Jacques Derrida lecturing in Paris on some technical problems of philosophy, to the alarm of the guardians of the West (Village Voice Nov. 9, 2004).


In the interest of disclosure, and with the further excuse that this essay is to some extent about biography, including intellectual biography, I should say I had the privilege of knowing Jacques Derrida personally, during and after his term as Andrew Dickson White Professor at Large at Cornell University, although I cannot presume to have known him as well as a great many others in America did. I mostly watched intently from the sidelines, fearfully inexpert in the canon of texts through which his thinking moved like “Spenser, moving through his clouded heaven” (Wordsworth, The Prelude 3.280-81). I therefore reacted with misgivings to the kindness of being invited to join Derrida and a small party of French professors at dinner. My spoken French was rusty, and what would I say about Husserl? I needn’t have worried: socially, this tiger of the seminar room and lecture hall was the most amiable and easy of companions, his natural warmth and natural reserve complementing each other. His later work did not speak to me with the force that his early work did—especially that fascicule of thunderbolts, Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972)—and although his peculiar way of writing circuitously at such crushing length could excite reservations in the most well disposed reader, I am far from being a detached assessor of his achievement. Too much of it helped me.

One lecture he gave at Cornell—I think it was “Comment ne pas parler,” “How not to Speak,” later published in Psychê: inventions de l’autre (Paris: Galilée, 1998)—gave me the right way to approach an essay in Diacritics that became a chapter of Delirious Milton. But the Spenser connection ran deeper. Derrida’s early writings—in particular the essay “La Différance” [sic]—influenced my Toronto doctoral dissertation on the organization of Spenser’s Faerie Queene as a system in crisis. At one unbalanced stage of my work my supervisor, William Blissett, summarized the topic as “derring-do to Derrida.” I had found Derrida’s terrific essay “La Différance” in the original Tel Quel volume, called Théorie d’ensemble, and, terrier-like, I shook it hard once a day for a week. (I did not know it had already been republished in Marges de la philosophie, 3-29.) It still seems to me the best of everything Derrida would say later is contained in this missive from the ethereal regions of metaphysics in crisis. It still seems to me that in a better world where what one says counts for more than how much one says, Derrida’s reputation could have rested on this essay alone, especially for its association of textual “meaning” (vouloir-dire) with metaphysical presence. “La Différance” is about the undermining or displacement of meaning-as-presence by what Derrida (following Nietzsche’s Spur) calls trace, which is also a Spenserian word: “ne let him then admyre / But yield his sence to bee blunt and bace / That n’ote without an hound fine footing trace” (

The cat-and-mouse game with meaning-as-presence that is played in “La Différance” seemed to me comparable to the feedback system of the project of The Faerie Queene, in which an imaginary, centering structure, Fairy Court, is continually affirmed as a value that is present throughout, and continually deferred. We will get there eventually, but not yet. We will grasp the full meaning eventually, but not now. The system works as a system because it never gets close to the center it pretends it is always heading towards and will eventually arrive at. Spenser’s stated plan, which has knights proceeding from Fairy Court on twelve successive days and returning after their adventures are accomplished, is never fulfilled because it is the paradigmatic idea of order by which the poem can organize itself as it goes along. Fairy Court is not a real center of an actually existing heterocosm, like the delightfully naive fold-out map in the McNeir-Provost Spenser bibliography. It is instead a pattern of information informing every stanza of the poem, as genetic information in an organism informs every cell. The structure of The Faerie Queene is not architectonic but cybernetic, not static but in motion. It is a self-organizing event that is always in crisis.

After an evening seminar Derrida gave at Cornell on Hegel and positing—typically, he did it on a sudden, at a colleague’s request, and an audience was quickly assembled—I wrote a small bibliographical and deconstructive article on the “positioning” of Spenser’s Letter to Raleigh. The Letter to Raleigh presents the poem, after the manner of allegory, as a spatial structure stabilizing a total meaning that is then set into play in narrative, one part after another. The Letter is the positing of a thesisthesis being the substantive of the Greek verb tithêmi meaning “to place, to set up”—which declares, as Spenser says, the poem’s “general intention and meaning, which in the whole course thereof I have fashioned.” I argued that what is posited as a general intention and meaning changes depending on where the Letter is positioned with respect to the text of The Faerie Queene: before, after, in the middle, contiguous with the poem or separated from it by dedicatory poems—or left out altogether, as it was in 1596. One may doubt whether the literally changing position of the Letter to Raleigh in or near or altogether away from the text of The Faerie Queene can be so closely connected to positing. But the Letter itself is a positing, a “placing” or thesis, an argument. This argument seems to change depending on where it is placed.

In retrospect, it seems to me the influence on Allegory and Violence (1996) of Derrida’s early work was greater than I was aware of when I published that book, an influence too deep for punctual gestures in footnotes or facile appropriation of terms. I took the conventions that give works of allegory from late antiquity to the Enlightenment what coherence they have to be the imaginative expression of what I shall now venture into Derrida’s language to call the logocentric metaphysics of presence dominating philosophical thought in the West. A broad, indeed comprehensive system of hierarchies determined by logocentric metaphysics, among which the authority of speech over writing was key, resulted in what Derrida would speak of as the violence of metaphysics. That is the theoretic and diagnostic part: mystified systems of oppressive authority—one gender over another, one race over another, etc.—are linked together in a comprehensive metaphysics betrayed by the privileging of voice over writing. Because all philosophy in the West is written down, this particular instance of suppression is the important one to solicit. Just as a speaking voice is prior to writing, authorizing it, so too the presence of a singular meaning is behind philosophical writing. This latent presence of meaning or, as it was once called, “undermeaning” (hyponoia) is with much more exaggerated portentousness supposed to lie behind allegorical signs.

Because another hierarchy is that of theory over practice, deconstruction becomes a practice instead of an order of theoretic propositions on the level of concepts. It may be asked why in this practice hierarchical relations have to be reversed, instead of merely balanced, as in liberal ideology, in which men and women, and different races, and different sexual orientations, etc., are accorded equal rights. It is argued that being un-hierarchical is impossible, because unless the entire system is changed, the old hierarchies will inevitably reinstate themselves. (This seems to me truer of the notion of deconstructing particular texts, instead of deconstructing metaphysics through texts: the poem you deconstruct on Monday must be deconstructed all over again on Tuesday.) The practice of deconstructive writing is not merely to re-balance but systematically to invert all apparently natural hierarchies, with a view to taking apart the edifice of Western onto-theology (a Heideggerean term) on which these hierarchies depend, and which they in turn support.

Taken seriously (and was it ever?), this is an extremely radical program, one to which Derrida himself seems never to have accorded full assent. Even so, he presents his counterintuitive privileging of writing over speech as the model for conducting a more general practice, one that will disseminate—to use another of his key terms—throughout culture. That explains his enormous cultural influence. (See also Michele Lamont, “How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: the Case of Jacques Derrida,” American Journal of Sociology 93 [November 1987]: 584-622.)

I confess I have remained closer to the theoretic end of this enterprise, with its criticism of Heidegger (Heidegger’s “Being” is another Faerie Court) and its use of inscription to expose the paradoxes of logocentric structure. In any event, Spenserians are familiar with how often in The Faerie Queene the orthographic distortion of words on the page so as to enrich their meaning is not perceivable in the acoustic field. The silent, visual scanning of the text of The Faerie Queene is prior in importance to its self-presentation in the acoustic field, as a “song” accompanied by “trumpets sterne” instead of by an “Oaten reed” ( The poet’s voice is not the source of the poem but one of its effects, and Fairy Count is not the source and destination of the poem’s system (its action combined with its allegorical meaning) but is instead merely an effect of that system. Derrida says this about metaphysical presence: that it is no longer the source and ground of the system but a later effect produced from within (“La Différance” 17).

In Allegory and Violence I was more inclined to think the violence of metaphysics—Marxian as much as Platonic metaphysics—came not from hierarchy tout court (surely we want some instances of authority and hierarchy?) but from the force that needed to be applied in crossing the gap of methexis—“participation” (from Greek metechô “to have a share of”)—between abstractions and their intended examples, between general ideas, or general theories, and their instantiations, between utopia and body. I will presume to say a similar approach is taken in David Lee Miller’s The Poem’s Two Bodies. From the Platonic idea of the state—a model or “paradigm in the sky,” as Plato called it (paradeigma en ourano [Republic 592a7-b3])—to the centrally planned economy, the violent application of abstractions to life (if they don’t work, apply more force) strikes me as of far more concern to liberty than overturning all relations of hierarchy and authority. The practice of such universal overturning, and I mean the practice of deconstruction, would be undiscriminatingly violent—and it would be so not in practice, by accident, as it were, but in principle, on purpose.

That is one criticism I always had of deconstruction. Another is less serious. It seemed to me the historical dimension of Derrida’s work—and it was considerable, in comparison with philosophical discourse generally—strangely underestimated the importance of Christianity to the metaphysical founding of the culture of the sign. It was as if the line of development from the critique of writing in the Phaedrus to Hegel’s preface to the Phenomenology and Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo never passed through the thousand year period when the natural world was written into being by the finger of God, and hence supersaturated with allegorical significance. It was not that these things were unknown to Derrida, far from it, but they didn’t seem to matter. This most unconventional of philosophers—he is surely the wildest philosopher since the wilder pre-Socratics—never strayed far from the philosophical canon—except into poetry, and there the canon of poets he was interested in was limited. In this he was like Heidegger.


It was due largely to Derrida’s influence—although perhaps I should say, to his absence, his term at Cornell having elapsed—that I founded in the early 1990s, with Richard Klein and the then graduate student Charles Mahoney, who thought it up, the Cornell Hegel Reading Group. Hegel is the father of critical theory—although such paternity might have dismayed him—and it made sense to read the canonical texts, especially the Phenomenology. The idea was to facilitate graduate student writing (dialectic being a well-known cure for writers’ block) and perhaps faculty writing, too, although this last was undeclared. The students fled—all except Mahoney—and the faculty stayed. In 2000 we read through Derrida’s Glas and in the spring of 2001 the group and some of its former visitors held a three-day seminar on Glas in Kolding, Denmark, hosted by Roy Sellars, a former member of the group, then teaching at the University of South Denmark. To our amazement, when Roy told him of our plans, Derrida communicated his willingness to attend for the entire three days and to join in discussion of a book he published a quarter-century previously—because it remained, as he said, dearest to his heart. Although visibly frail, he was the same gracious and indefatigable social presence, and his stamina was amazing. On the third day television crews showed up, and still Derrida kept going, discussing, engaging, commenting. At dinner on the last night he mentioned he was about to do a long lecture tour in China, the most daunting aspect of which, from his point of view, was that he would have to do everything in English. I would see him once more, in Paris, speaking on Paul Celan, at the Ecole internationale de philosophie, which he helped to found. Soon after that, he was gone. Without presuming to claim more than an amiable and courteous acquaintance across fifteen years—and a profound intellectual debt to his earlier work—I felt it as a personal loss.

With these lengthy preliminaries dispatched, I return to the books.


They are still there on my desk, a foot apart, one at my left hand and one at my right: two enormous black tomes (dust covers removed): biographies of Edmund Spenser and Jacques Derrida. Thinking of their contrasting subjects—philosophy and poetry—I recall the dream recounted in the fifth book of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, known generally as “The Dream of the Arab,” the most Spenserian episode in The Prelude. It starts with the speaker-dreamer in a cave by the sea, reading Don Quixote, meditating on the mad hidalgo and on the frailty of “poetry and geometric truth” (Prelude 5. 65), metaphysical things that must rest on mutable, material foundations. The speaker falls asleep and finds himself in a vast level desert, when there appears beside him an Arab bearing a lance, riding a dromedary: “He seemed an Arab of the Bedouin tribes” (Prelude 5.77). At times in the dream the Arab turns into Don Quixote and turns back again into the Arab, although that is not important for my purpose here, even though, as a boy, the dark-skinned Jackie Derrida was affectionately called “little Arab,” and Spenser’s out-of-season chivalry aligns him with Don Quixote. A little more important is that the two other objects the Arab carries—in addition to his lance—turn from what they are into books, and back again. What they are is a stone, which because of his lance the Arab supports under one arm, and a lustrous shell, grasped in the opposite hand. The stone, says the Arab, is “Euclid’s elements,” which means philosophy because, according to tradition, there was an inscription over Plato’s Academy forbidding entrance to anyone unlearned in geometry, the ageômetrêtos. So Euclid’s Elements, that stone, are philosophy, or its foundation. The shell, says the Arab, “is something of more worth” (88-89), which we may take to be poetry, the other subject the dreamer was meditating on when he fell asleep: “poetry and geometric truth.” The dreamer is exhorted to hold the shell to his ear. When ear and shell meet, the dreamer hears “a loud prophetic blast” foretelling “Destruction to the children of the earth / By deluge, now at hand” (95-98). The Arab says he is fleeing from the deluge to bury the two “books”—stone and shell—and so save human knowledge. At this moment the dreamer looks over his shoulder and sees half the desert covered with “A bed of glittering light”; it is, the Arab warns, “the waters of the deep / Gathering upon us” (129-31). The last sight of the Arab shows him riding off, “hurrying o’er the illimitable waste, / With the fleet waters of a drowning world / In chase of him” (136-8). Apparently, the waters are no longer in chase of the speaker, who wakes in terror to see the real sea before him and the book—it is still Don Quixote—at his side.


The question Wordsworth’s “Dream of the Arab” does not raise—unless, perhaps, it does so in that detail of the two objects turning into books, presumably identical books—is whether poetry and philosophy are at some deeper level one and the same, the stone a resolved shell, so to speak, and the shell an exfoliated stone. Making the necessary qualifications, one may say that Derrida thought so, in a dispersing or disseminative way; and Spenser thought so, too, in a unifying way. One wrote philosophical poetry, the other poetic philosophy.

Continuing my investigation of this possibility, I place the two books end to end and roll a marble down the length of them. When the marble crosses the divide from the top of one book to the bottom of the other, it doesn’t bounce. With the help of a magnifying glass I discern a slight trembling in the marble—and also a slight acceleration due to an instant of reduced friction—as it rolls from one well-packaged discursive regime to the other. Imagining the books as sides of an hyperbole, tilting them a little, would there perhaps be a point, a vertex, somewhere below the table, where philosophy and poetry meet? The thought experiment is inconclusive. Reading will probably be necessary, although it is already certain not to yield any certain answer to this question. But it is the question Derrida’s “philosophy” always asks, not only because he is frequently concerned with poetry but also because this is philosophy written in a highly poetical way. It is perhaps not philosophy at all, in the narrower sense, but rhetoric, poetry, art, or what a French reviewer of Glas nicely called “textual production.” No doubt, in the long run, philosophers, or Philosophy, will decide which of Derrida’s writings are of enduring philosophical interest. As is often the case with major philosophers, Derrida is easy to summarize, but hard to follow in detail.  

The objection of philosophers—and not only Anglo-American philosophers—to Derrida’s style may proceed from the supposition that the prose of philosophical writing is always a falling off from the ideal of logical form—this supposition being one manifestation of a general condition Derrida referred to as logocentrism, where logos is the principle of reason (the word means “word” or “speech”—legein “to speak”—but it also means a “reason” or “argument”) which when formalized in symbols is logic. If this latter sense is privileged, then philosophy that argues in language instead of in formal symbols is a falling away from logic. Philosophical language must refer to logic from a distance indicated by the adjective logical. Not logical: not philosophy. I am far from prepared to give up the view that philosophical argument is grounded in logical form. And indeed the point of deconstruction is that it is. But Derrida’s philosophical writing explores the possibility—and this is what makes him most like Heidegger—of a convergence of philosophy and poetry, as at the origin of philosophy, with the pre-Socratics. If philosophy takes language instead of logic as primary in importance, as Heidegger did, then philosophers must listen to language itself. They must listen especially closely to the etymology of Greek, Latin, French and German words, and Greek words especially. Etymology throws logic off its course.

For Heidegger, the philological structure of these words—and of the old, “dead” metaphors curled up inside them—composes a sort of Aeolian harp through which the wind of Being sounds: “l’être parle partout et toujours a travers toute langue,” “Being speaks everywhere and always throughout all language” (“La Différance” 29). Derrida concludes “La Différance” with this quotation, which he gives twice, once as it is and once with soliduses between the elements of the sentence, as if the question “How does this differ from itself, fail to coincide with what it is?” were inserted at each solidus: “L’être / parle / partout et toujours / à travers / toute / langue.” (“Being / speaks / everywhere and always / across / all language.”) For Derrida, Heidegger’s Being is another specter, a spirit, a wind that “bloweth where it listeth” (John 3: 8).

There is an interesting reference to spirit in Derrida’s correspondence. An incautious reader of him may suppose that in all circumstances and in the simplest way Spirit is bad. But of course the very reason for taking Spirit seriously is that it possesses us, it haunts us, as it haunts Derrida’s youthful language, especially when it comes to that most spectral of things, value. During his fellowship year at Harvard, in a letter to Louis Althusser, his teacher at the Ecole normale, Derrida wrote contemptuously of the teaching of philosophy at Harvard. But he admitted he was learning “a load of things about Frege, the young Husserl, etc.” These studies would prove invaluable for the thesis on Husserl that would be the next stage of Derrida’s career. What appears to have annoyed him (was this only a posture to please Althusser?) was the magnificence of some buildings at Harvard, especially Widener Library (“the hugest cemetery for books in the world”), in which, in fact, Derrida did a huge amount of work he could not have done, by his own admission, at the Biblothèque Nationale. It was also in Widener that Derrida read two of the most important English books in his life: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A partisan of the university where I teach might not unreasonably claim Harvard was the making of Derrida.

Near Widener is Emerson Hall, where philosophy is lodged, and it is the other building Derrida means when he refers to “vast and pompous façades,” behind which only “innocence and inexperience” are to be found. How striking the contrast with that “old worm-eaten house” the Sorbonne, “through which the spirit blows in hurricanes” (Peeters 84 and 87-88)! Anyone who has seen the gloriously pompous facade of the Sorbonne—or its almost equally pompous backside—will not think it so unimpressive as this comparison suggests.


What may then be said about the relation of philosophy to poetry in Spenser? I know of no other English poet—not Coleridge, and not even Wordsworth—who in his poetry makes such a strong claim to philosophical importance. How is this articulation put together? In the Letter to Raleigh Spenser remains blandly faithful to the commonplaces of Renaissance literary theory, especially the one that says poetry is the sweet coating to the bitter pill of moral instruction. In the Letter to Raleigh Spenser holds the poetry of The Faerie Queene to be merely a pleasing surface covering over solid moral instruction, a surface added as a concession to the weakness and distractibility of readers. Readers will not tolerate discourse that is “sermoned at large.” They insist on having poetry instead: “To some I know this Methode will seeme displeasaunt, which had rather have good discipline delivered plainely in way of precepts, or sermoned at large, as they use, then thus clowdily enwrapped in Allegorical devises.”

Spenser does not say cloudily enwrapped in sweet song; he does not say cloudily enwrapped in a pleasing fiction; he says cloudily enwrapped in allegorical devices. Poetry is built upon the structure of the allo, the “other.” It reaches beyond itself, and so aspires to metaphysical truth. The relation of poetry to philosophy is one of self-transcendence. In the poem itself—or rather, in the proems to Books Two, Three, and Four—poetry is no mere concession to weakness of mind or to a truth that transcends: it is an exploration of regions of feeling and thought that are unreachable by any other means. But is what poetry reaches after by means of allegory the same thing that a poetical style of philosophy is reaching after? Do Spenser and Derrida meet at that vertex?


Returning the books to their original positions, I open each and begin reading them—by turns. It is a classic Derridean practice, double reading, each column of text undermining the other and complicating it, as in “Tympan” (Marges i-xi), and Glas (1974)—the title denotes the toll of a bell—which runs along in two columns side by side, the one commenting on Hegel—the philosopher of “absolute knowledge,” le savoir absoludas absolutes Wissen—and the other on Jean Genet, whose life and writing undermine system itself. That is the simplest thing one can say about Glas, this typographical wonder (it was produced a decade before word-processors). The two columns have different-sized type (the right, or Genet side is larger), and each is cut into or interrupted in its structure by inserted commentary and quotation in yet smaller type: “two unequal columns, each the envelope or sheath of the other, each incalculably undermining, returning upon, replacing, commenting on, cutting into and recuperating the other” (Glas, 1974; rpt. Paris: Galilée, 1995, 7).

These columns are compared in Glas to the two, sixty-foot, 3,400-year-old eroding stone colossuses of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III at Thebes, although they became known in antiquity as the colossuses of Memnon, the famous Ethiopian king in the Iliad, mentioned in Milton’s “Il Penseroso.” One of the colossuses was said to sing when struck by the first beam of dawn, or to emit a sound—in Greek, klang—that was like a blow, or a knell: hence the title, Glas, a death-knell. One of the themes of the book is autobiography—etymologically, the self writing its life—and Derrida’s father had recently died. It is a book of mourning.

These colossuses stand before a mortuary temple, and the book—which is two books side by side within a single text—is concerned with enclosure and tombs and rotting flesh, especially, in a well-known stretch of Glas, the tomb of Antigone (her name means “against generation”) because of the importance of Sophocles’ play to Hegel’s dialectical understanding of the opposition between divine and human law, the former associated with women and the latter with men (The Phenomenology of Spirit, paragraphs 437 and 446-463). The life of the unwritten, divine statutes is not a thing of today or yesterday but is everlasting, and no one knows when they appeared (Antigone 454-57). For Hegel, Sophocles’ Antigone—with its opposition of the law of the state represented by Creon and the divine law represented by Antigone—marks one stage or “moment” in the progress of Spirit in history.  But, Derrida writes, “Nothing should have survived the death of Antigone. Nothing more should have followed or come of her, after her. The announcement of her death should have sounded the absolute end of history” (Glas, p. 187). 

The end of history is, of course, in Hegel, not Sophocles, and it comes a long time after the death of Antigone, callously reprocessed by Hegel as a necessary step in the systematic progress of Spirit, Geist. The crypt holds what the system must reject as incapable of being assimilated by thought, and yet the loss cryptically makes the system possible even as the reality of loss is denied—so Derrida claims. The process is not unfamiliar from speaking with figures in authority—and perhaps from listening to oneself in authority. Do you not feel, just because of what you have been denied—in Antigone’s case, that would be life—all the more a part of the system? We are in this enterprise together, and your sacrifice contributes to the whole; it makes you more intimately a member of this whole. It is with Antigone’s death as with war memorials: the double movement of exclusion and reincorporation makes possible the progress of reason and the continuity of the state. What is dead is included in what is alive. The system appears to be digesting what is heterogeneous to it: “Crypt—one might have said the transcendental or the repressed, the unthought or the excluded—which organizes the ground to which it does not belong. What speculative dialectic wants to say is that the crypt can still be incorporated in the system. The transcendental or the repressed, the unthought or the excluded, must be assimilated into the body of the whole, interiorized as a series of moments, idealized even in the very negativity of their work. The pause, the moment of arrest, is nothing other than a stasis in the introjection of the spirit [into what only appears to escape it]” (Glas 187).


There are no sacred corpses in The Faerie Queene, excluded so that the allegorical system may work: so that the knights will move; so that the monsters will rear up like black clouds; so that Arthur will jump like a distributor spark from one knight to another; so that the Garden of Acrasia, the Garden of Adonis, the House of Busyrane, the Church of Isis and the dance of the maidens on Acidale will light up in turn and beam forth into the fringes of the action; so that Britomart and Artegal will pursue each other laterally through the middle books, with the promise of a great marriage to come. In Derrida’s language, the Fairy Queen is a textual trace. It is undecidable whether she is dead or alive, a living womb or a monument, a pyramid, whether she is present everywhere in the poem that bears her name, or entirely absent. But from this undecided state the Fairy Queen is converted into a transcendental referent—the goal of the allegory, of reading—and becomes a function within the text of the poem, holding the parts together in a “generalized structure of return” (“une structure de revoi généralisé”). Here is the relevant passage in full. I quote it in full because it seems to me, whether it intends anything of the kind or no, among the most important sentences written on the subject of allegory: “the inversion of the concept of metaphysics produces the following effect: Presence becomes the sign of a sign, [merely] the trace of a trace. Presence is no longer that which, in the last instance, gathers to itself every return [“renvoi tout renvoi”]. Presence becomes [but one] function in a generalized structure of reference back, or return. Presence is a trace, and what it traces is the erasure of the trace” (“La Différance” 25). Try this substituting allegory for metaphysicsGloriana for presence and faerie for trace.

Perhaps the sacred corpse we have missed—the Antigone at the center of the system, entombed—is the Fairy Queen herself. How do we know she isn’t in a tomb, or that it isn’t her magical voice from the tomb that sends the knights forth on their quests, like the voice of Merlin speaking out of his tomb in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso? Is there a reason we never get to see the Fairy Queen? Conspiracy theorists should be on the alert. Will Prince Arthur arrive at Cleopolis to discover that the night he spent with the specter of Gloriana was also the night of her death? Is the Fairy Queen, like Antigone, “against generation,” so that Britomart must take her place in the poem as the mother, the matrix of history? Perhaps this is no more than what Blake calls “a memorable fancy.” But the absence of a Fairy Queen from The Faerie Queene is something more than a deferral, something more than a debt to be paid off later on, in Book Twelve, should the poet live to write it, which of course he didn’t. No. The absence of the Fairy Queen from The Faerie Queene is necessary for its system to work. Britomart cannot become pregnant by Artegal, and bear the line of Briton kings, so long as Arthur bends towards Gloriana like a stamen to the pistil.


Glas is an extreme, polysemous, uncontrollable and unmasterable text—Derrida acknowledged his ambition to write his own Finnegans Wake—and in this alone it resembles that other massive text which yet exceeds itself in meaning, spilling over its boundaries and reducing the entire world to commentary on it: Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Each is a graphomaniacal tour de force, but one theme is common to both: a preoccupation with system. The important point for comparison between Derrida and Spenser is the relation in each of system to waste (Glas) and of allegory to the non-signifying, mimetic event (The Faerie Queene).

What are we to do, what is the reader of allegory to do, when Spenser attributes to Fairy Land a real existence, like that of Virginia, instead of treating it as the imaginary scene of moral struggle within us? What are we to do when Spenser attributes powerful human emotions to characters who are supposed to be signs in this struggle, mere “Allegorical devises,” where devise means a purely mental construct? In short, what are we to do with Spenserian existence?

A Derridian word for the former term in each of the pairings mentioned above—system and allegory—is the specter or ghost, Hegel’s Geist. The theme is developed in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, but I want to remain with Derrida’s earlier concern with it in Hegel. The specter is the dream of total meaning, or absolute knowledge, which haunts all the moving parts of Hegel’s system. One can say that in Glas the specter is a system in motion, a system working through history from the past to the present. In The Faerie Queene the specter is in a centered structure, outside time (although it contains a symmetrical “there-and-back” narrative movement), which is the foundation of the allegory. The center, which we never see, is the Fairy Queen herself in her central city, Cleopolis, “city of glory, or fame.”

This structure is the total plan of the poem, with its twelve knights going out from Cleopolis to encounter the monstrous at the periphery, that is, at the margins of the system where it meets what is heterogeneous to it, what threatens its very existence: the unholy, the intemperate, the unchaste, the discordant, the unjust, the discourteous. The knights are then to return—I am still speaking of the plan—having mastered and, in Derrida’s language, introjected what is heterogeneous to the system and only seems to have escaped the system. The best example of this is the Titanesse Mutabilitie, not only because Titans are the perennial rebels against the Jovian system. Mutabilitie is the perfection of what Spenser—or shall we say, Spenser’s system?—has been trying to do all along: to make what is against it become a part of itself.

Mutabilitie is not killed or imprisoned, and she does not escape to make trouble later. She is “put downe,” which is to say, restored to her former place in the system, below the sphere of the moon, but in such a way that she now occupies her place in the system less turbulently. Mutabilitie is dismaying, but is no longer a threat. In very English fashion, a metaphysical problem has been settled in court.


In Glas, the system in question is Hegel’s dialectic, the subject of the left-hand column. The dialectic is the connection between the specter, the Spirit, wearing its various masks, and the heterogeneous parts of the system, developing in time. But for Derrida the development is continually and perversely undermined from within by the waste it produces—le reste, the remainder, or les restes, the scraps. This is waste that the system can only pretend to recycle. The Hegelian dialectic is like those decaying colossuses, which are sublime and powerful, and yet weak, always turning to rubble. The Memnonian statues—two of them—are a vision of the Hegelian system, in which the overpowering strength of that system is inseparable from the repetition of its failure to cohere.

If the system undermines itself from within, its destruction is still more apparent from without, from what is entirely heterogeneous to it—the “without” in this book being the right-hand column of Glas, with its meditation on the religion of flowers and its notional prophet, Jean Genet—thief, vagabond, prostitute, drag queen, pornographer, political activist, apologist for terrorists (the Baader-Meinhof gang), great writer. There is something Spenserian about this figure of Genet as it operates in Glas. He is a little like Spenser’s Malengin, or “Bad Cleverness,” an Irish guerilla devoted to subversion, and a lot like Archimago—without the hypocrisy. Arguably the greatest French dramatist since Racine—like Racine, he makes the theatre feel dangerous—Genet is perhaps most like Spenser’s Busyrane, a virtuoso of the theatre of cruelty. 

Genet was obsessed with flowers—his own name is the name of a flower, genêt, or broom, which in Provence turns the roadsides yellow in the spring. Genet fashioned a poetics of flowers as well as making a religion of them. On the other side, Hegel is the sun, and the figure for solar religion, the religion of reason, which burns up the flowers in summer, unless they are sheltered in deep mountain valleys, as readers of pastoral poetry know.

Hegel’s name in French is nearly homophonous with “eagle” (aigle); and the eagle, alone among creatures, looks at the sun—or so Pliny says. The sun travels from east to west, tracing the course of reason in the world, from early civilization in the East to later and more mature civilization in the West. But what about the casualties, and what about waste? Genet was a casualty of the system from the beginning of his life, and a perennial outsider. He stands for the power of waste, of what cannot be reincorporated into the system of absolute knowledge. Flowers grow in waste of all kinds.


I think I have said enough about this very unsimple book to make one simple thing about it clear. It is that Glas thematizes the travails of system. It sets up before us the eternal struggle between an order that is trying to win and a disorder that is trying to escape. What could be more basic to our experience of life and our experience of thinking? All of life is a struggle between an orderliness that wants to win and a disorderliness that wants to escape. Creativity—including original thought—may be on the side of escape. But can you be creative in this way if there is not all around you a prison that is always a-building, one you erect yourself, since this orderliness also is necessary to life? Glas is a mighty strange book, a relic of the 1960s, fighting long-forgotten intellectual battles, many of them all but invisible by now, at least to me. It bears some of the scars of 1968, when Nicolas Sarkozy, now a former president of the republic, was only a student, protesting in favor of order, on the opposite side from the student rebels who wanted to bring down the Republic in a gesture of radical escape. Derrida was himself very far from supporting the anarchy of ‘68, and hard feelings from his more radicalized colleagues lingered for years. Those days are certainly gone.

At least superficially, Glas looks dated, even if its opening words are about what it means for something to be dated: “what remains of a Hegel”? Once you see the game the book plays, however, the game of the agony of system, it seems to go to the heart of how we live, as we struggle to achieve order and struggle to escape what we achieve. That is one reason so much of Glas—to one’s considerable surprise, after the initial and very considerable difficulties of reading it—is moving.

It is hard to communicate the poetic effect, the great beauty and mystery, of the opening page of Glas, of its opening sentences, with the ravishing, stutter-step prose rhythm, and the mesmerizing repetition of phrases such as ici, maintenant “here, now.” After the three sentences in which it is repeated the phrase ici, maintenant “here, now,” modulates into déjàtoujours “already, always.” The change imitates Hegel’s dialectic as it modulates continually between its moments in the here and now and its momentum towards the totality of the system, towards a totality that has always already been present, though concealed, in what only seems to emerge in the here and now, and in each of the phases of development. Apply this last sentence to The Faerie Queene. The allegory seems to modulate continually between its moments of iconic legibility and its momentum towards the totality of the meaning of its system (its “darke conceit”), that is, towards a totality that has always already been present, though concealed, in what only seems to emerge in isolated, iconic instants, and in each of its phases of development, its episodes.

I am not sure this page of Glas with its two columns is so different—for its typographical virtuosity as well for in its underlying rhythms, with their uncertain, stuttering movements—from the opening stanzas of the first canto of The Faerie Queene. Imagine a young, smart, self-consciously modern reader in London in 1590 in Paul’s Churchyard, at the sign of the Bishop’s Head, having perhaps walked there from the Inns of Court across Knightrider Street (with its antiquated, chivalric associations), and opening this new poem by Spenser, “disposed into twelve books, fashioning twelve morall vertues.” What are we to make now, in modern times—at this advanced date, the year 1590—of a mounted knight, in the full panoply of the chivalric past, bearing arms honorably dinted from old battles, and the bloody cross of a crusader, but who has himself never been in a battle? Different orders of system appear on the very title page and again in these opening stanzas: on the one hand ancient Christian chivalry, and on the other hand modern moral virtue, as Aristotle hath devised, so useful for the building of the modern state. How are they to work together? Perhaps what we will think henceforth of the virtues—and even of religion, with all the turbulent changes of the present—will not have been possible to think without the machinery of these antiquated signs. The chivalric system of Christian idealism, expressing the Roman Catholic unity of the faith, no longer works and lies in fragments about us, bearing “the cruell markes of many’a bloody fielde” (I.i.1). The old faith was a system, not of absolute knowledge but of absolute certainty, which is perhaps as good as absolute knowledge. But now it is in ruins, its very practices outlawed. Can we leave it all behind, as a total failure, as the very modern puritan radicals insist we must? Or should we pick up the pieces and reassemble them in some new configuration, striving to discover what remains of value in them, what numen resides in these symbols. For on the subject of religion, in these confused and violent times (the Marprelate controversy was fresh in memory), it may be that what we shall have to think on religion will not have been possible to think without what remains.

Like Finnegans WakeGlas opens in mid sentence: “what moreover today, for us, here, now, of a Hegel? For us, here, now: that is what one will not have been able henceforth to think without him. For us, here, now: these words are citations, already, always, we will have learned this from him” (“quoi du reste aujourd’hui, pour nous, ici, maintenant, d’un Hegel? Pour nous, ici, maintenant: voila ce qu’on n’aura pu désormais penser sans lui. Pour nous, ici, maintenant: ces mots sont des citations, déjà, toujours, nous l’aurons appris de lui”). Each sentence is given a paragraph to itself, and the word reste is cunningly inserted as an idiomatic “moreover” or “besides”: “what moreover [du reste] today, for us, here, now, of a Hegel?” But we correct this fragment silently to say, what remains? “What remains for us today, here and now, of a Hegel?” The second sentence says, “For us, here, now: this is what one will not have been able henceforth to think without him.” The first sentence hints that the plan of absolute knowledge is already in ruins. It remains to ask only what remains to be rescued or used in an unexpected way, like bricollage. We pick up the pieces of “a Hegel.” Some of this resonates with the language of complacent intellectual fashion. That’s over: what’s coming now? What, if anything, of a Hegel should we save? As if were in our power to decide whether to remember or forget Hegel.

The second sentence says something harder. It says certain things that we will think in the future, after Hegel has been surpassed, will, nevertheless, not have been possible to think without him. This means Hegel will not have been surpassed, least of all when we suppose that he has been. The constraints of order will have been necessary to the sparkle of escape, and to its retrospective sparkle as well. The third sentence consolidates: “For us, here, now: these words are citations, already, always, we will have learned this from him.” And then, after a space, “Qui, lui?” “Who, him?” And after another space: “Son nom est si étrange. De l’aigle il tient la puissance impériale ou historique.” (“His name is so strange. From the eagle he takes imperial, or historical power.”) In a note soon to come the point will be spelled out: that the eagle will be here, in this text, the sign of absolute knowledge, sometimes with lead on its wings, so that it can hardly fly. What remains of this colossus? What fragments? What citations? What rubble? In its very ruin it will have made possible for us everything we will be able to think.


While this elegiac and high-minded theme is being played out in the left column, as if on a cello, sharp, strident woodwinds come in from the right. The technology of stereophonic reproduction, where distinct components of the music come out of right and left speakers, has influenced the two-column structure of Glas. It is up to the listener—and the reader of Glas must certainly listen—to put the sounds together in the head. It is a quotation from Jean Genet, suitably shocking, in the language of the harshest pornography, although it comes from the drafts of a planned book of art criticism, on Rembrandt, and describes in the grossest terms the criminal destruction of a painting. (In France it is illegal to destroy a work of art, even if you own it.) Yet the question that is implied in the quotation from Genet (“that which remains of a Rembrandt …”) is the opposite of the coarse and obscene. It is a spiritual question: in what does the spiritual in art consist, or rather, on what does it subsist? What supports it? (The term used in France for the surface on which a painting is made is its support, recalling Greek hypokeimenon “that which lies under,” translated into scholastic Latin as substantia.) The support of the painting is perversely destroyed. But perhaps, the passage appears to imply, its spiritual content flies up, if it still can, like an eagle.

Is this not the question concerning Roman Catholicism in England in the 1590s, not perhaps at the height of iconoclasm, the destruction of the material support of the Christian faith, but after that height, when the ruins were lying all about and the time for consolidation had come? Consolidation by the Church of England, which retained ecclesiastical hierarchy, and a Book of Common Prayer insufficiently radical for the Puritans. Richard Hooker was hard at work at this time on that masterpiece of debate and consolidation The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the intellectual foundation of the Anglican Church, forged in the fires of controversy over the question: what remains, what is of value in that which has been overcome, or supplanted, or destroyed?

Recall that this was the question that started Wordsworth’s “Dream of the Arab”: the young man’s anxiety concerning the frailty of all humanity’s spiritual accomplishments, should a cataclysm destroy their underlying support. What happens to spirit when it is un-housed, outside its material system, when it is a remainder? The spirit of the system, the Hegelian system, is its animating and also its unifying power: it is the unity of the system as a system and remains so, presumably, even if it is outside the system.

That exposure is what we next see in Spenser: “A lovely Ladie rode him faire beside, / Upon a lowly Asse more white then snow, / Yet she much whiter” (I.i.4). This is of course Una, Miss Unity, although she will not be named as such for many stanzas yet. But riding out in the open on her lowly ass, a posture of humility that reminds us of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, she is the spirit of the Christian faith outside the material elements of the system of that faith, old Roman Catholicism; outside the city, in quest of a new one.

In Glas, the spirit that is now outside the system of the dialectic alternates between one column of the text and the other and will do so through the entire book as we read. It thus becomes possible—or so it seems for a moment—for this process of reading to take in—i.e., to calculate—all the potentialities of meaning released by the interplay between the two columns, and to complete a new, total system. Within each column and from one column to the other (“dans chaque colonne et d’une colonne à l’autre”) everything is brought together in an infinite and yet, somehow, contained circulation. (Recall the phrase “a generalized structure of return.”) It is the dream of a total meaning. That hope is raised for a moment. Following that moment, we have a long space in the text of the right hand column, and then: “A peu près” (“almost”). And so the game comes round again, from closure to its undoing. A little bit escapes, and the little bit turns out to be a lot.


Now I must compare this opening page of Derrida’s Glas with the system of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. That is not as hard to do as might appear. Spenser certainly has at least as great a range, from the sublimity of the system of absolute knowledge—e.g., the allegory of the Garden of Adonis, and the pronouncement of Nature in the Mutabilitie Cantos—to the scatology of Duessa’s filthy rump and the shock of the twins Argante and Ollyphant, who copulate in their mother’s womb and are born in that state, in flagrante delicto. Consider also the dead dragon of Book One, and indeed the material fate of all the villains and monsters in The Faerie Queene, which seem to disappear entirely (like Busyrane), to be imprisoned and escape (like Archimago), or to become excreta, like Duessa’s “fruitfull-headed beast” who tumbles “on the durtie field” (I.viii.20). There is also Duessa’s champion, the giant Orgoglio, whose “huge great body” wallows “in his own fowle bloodie gore”; but at the next moment it has vanished like an eructation, or like urine dispersed into the ground: “and of that monstrous mas / Was nothing left, but like an emptie blader was” (I.viii.20 and 24). As for the dragon killed by the Redcrosse knight, its monstrous mass lies in vast extent on the ground, with the last, hot steam hovering in the air above it, its spirit wasting in the air. Spenser does not quite say this, but I have the sense the dragon’s body will turn to stone and become a feature of the landscape, a great hill. It is already “Stretcht on the ground in monstrous large extent” (I.xii.9), a giant coprolith. It is gazed on and prodded by children and the “raskall many” (I.xii.9), who fear its poisonous interior is filled with “many Dragonettes” yet living. These are “his”—note the gender of the pronoun—“fruitfull seede” (I.xii.10). In Bataille’s terms, there is something virulently productive about the potential of this dragon. It is a thing to wonder at, but only briefly, before being expelled from our minds.

The Mutabilitie Cantos arrive where Glas starts: at the agony of system. As Jove to Mutabilitie, so Hegel to Genet. The great difference is that Glas is on course for a burial, and funeral rites, in obedience to the tolling of its bell; and The Faerie Queene is on course to a marriage, even if the groom, Artegal—like Arthur himself—is already being mourned. In keeping with a marriage, The Faerie Queene is morally in favor of system, and even at the end, in The Mutabilitie Cantos, when subversion and system square off, the poet seems to put his thumb on the scale and tip it in favor of Jove. But we can’t be too sure, because of those final two stanzas, which are on the subjects, respectively, of loathing and prayer, nausea and hope. The instability of the system drives the poem forward from one book to the next.

I could develop this point with respect to holiness, temperance, and chastity, but it is more apparent still in the second series of three: friendship, justice, and courtesy. These are all political and social virtues. Friendship proves to be an inadequate ground for the state, giving way to a theory of justice. Justice proves an inadequate ground for the state, for a society, which can keep order only by increasing the level of killing, thus giving way to a theory of courtesy, or what we would now call culture, and an ethics not of the law but of the Levinassian “other.” Spenser’s poem develops in a sequence of phases one may describe as a phenomenology of the moral.


The plan of The Faerie Queene looks like a victory for order, which is of course how the poem was interpreted in the eighteenth century. That is what the poem was fashioned to do: to trick readers into completing its system, doing the system’s work for it, making it cohere. That clever, parasitical co-opting is notably at work in the editor John Upton, as of course it is in us all, after him. What else is there to do? An exemplary instance is the supercomplex reading of The Faerie Queene by James Nohrnberg, which uses analogy to make everything in the system cohere. Nohrnberg’s The Analogy of  The Faerie Queene is not a Hegelian book, but it is animated by the Spirit of Hegel in wanting to make everything progress and cohere. The grounding critical assumption of Nohrnberg’s virtuosic performance is that The Faerie Queene produces no waste. Meaning devours all.

But if that is the plan, the conduct may be otherwise. If The Faerie Queene is enacting the travail of system, we must consider the possibility that some things never fit in, are never processed by the allegory, and are never rescued for meaning, try as the system might—or try as we might, co-opted as we are by the system. The agony is in the effort to make it cohere. As cosmology seeks to “save the phenomena,” so allegory strives to let no phenomenon in the text, no single moment in it, escape being included as a part in the structure of the whole. Nothing must extrude for very long. All will be captured and used—“à peu près” (“Almost”). If we listen very closely (perhaps headphones will be necessary) we can just hear the noise of that breathy French phrase underneath the signal of the allegory of The Faerie Queene, a phrase that sounds like the rumble of an old tape machine, as its spindles revolve. Say it to yourself, as softly as you can, almost under your breath: à peu prèsà peu prèsà peu près ….

A critical question to ask about The Faerie Queene—could it be the critical question to ask about this poem today?—is how much of this work escapes meaning to fall into the shadow of that almost.

Gordon Teskey
Harvard University





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Cite as:

Gordon Teskey, "Edmund Spenser meets Jacques Derrida: On the Travail of Systems," Spenser Review 43.3.51 (Winter 2014). Accessed October 1st, 2023.
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