Jabes exists in the United States essentially because Derrida “discovered” him: Derrida discovered, “authorized” Jabes; therefore, he exists. Jabes did not have an independent prior recognition. It is absolutely essential to see that Jabes would not have existed in the States without the authorization of Derrida.Therefore, a critique of Jabes is in fact a critique of Derrida, and, consequently, a critique of the mainstream American intellectual’s concentration on Europe. Why did Derrida discover Jabes? Was it a lucky incident that every artist in his or her garret dreams of? Not at all. By “discovering” Jabes Derrida was legitimizing himself. They have both North African backgrounds, are both North African Jews, a fact with inescapable linguistic ramifications. Derrida spoke French among Arabs, that is to say, the language of the colonialist. When he moved to mainland France, he chose, linguistically and in terms of his career, the side of power. He became one of the “flowerings” of French prose.
Growing up in Egypt, Jabes also spoke French. Jabes’s French, as an Egyptian Jew, is the language of the privileged class in Egypt, the privileged island of power, surrounded by the Arabic “sand.” Jabes’s French is like Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, where the main characters are aristocrats and supposed to speak French among themselves, not Russian. That’s why whole sections of these novels, written in Russian, read like silent translations.
Jabes also, like Derrida, moved to France. His theme of “linguistic exile” is not, essentially, the Jewish or mystical theme of the diaspora or distance from God (Hashem); but his distance, exile from the less privileged people he was surrounded by and left behind, and their language, Arabic. Arabic, at least psychically his true home (if he played with other kids in the neighborhood), has no influence on Jabes’s French. His French has no accent. If it did, it may not be accepted because purity is a French ideal closely linked to a central tradition and resists accents. Egypt appears only as a decorative metaphor (with a touch of the intellectual-exotic: sand, desert, oasis, etc., “arabisme,” acceptable to post-Napoleonic French taste) in his work. As I see it, Jabes has to experience his own “writing” as a discontinuous series of immediate experiences, without memory, memory as negative space (a key aesthetic point for him, for Derrida and for American poets influenced by both) because, underlying it, there is a chaotic political choice: a Jew choosing the side and the language of privilege instead of the underdog. Jabes’s Judaism is false (assimilated) because its real home, “Hashem,” is Arabic which he emasculates by prettifying it. Judaism is a fashionable gimmick to hide his severance from his past, his memory of political choice, his experiences of childhood.
When Derrida “discovers” Jabes, he ignores this most crucial linguistic (therefore power) choice they both make. In a perceptive talk he gave at the Poetry Project in 1992, David Shapiro said that under his “revolutionary” demeanor, Derrida is essentially an academician, achieving a new flowering of exquisite French prose. I had a personal experience of that when, about a year ago, I attended a Derrida lecture at the 42nd Street Graduate Center. His ninety minute speech expounded, ethereally, subtly, how a “gift is not a gift” if acknowledged as such, the mere consciousness, “material utterance” of the act disqualifying it from being such. I also learnt that Derrida was charging $ 20,000.00 for his week visit to the United States. Derrida “discovers” Jabes because Jabes also is, in his ethereal, filigree prose, potentially, a similar kind of star, who has made a similar fateful choice. Derrida’s “discovery” is in fact an act of self-justification.