Posted by: Dan | August 3, 2012

A Note on Derrida’s Reading of “Counterfeit Money”

[A thought that occurred to me when I read Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money.  I feel like I might be missing something so I’m throwing this up here hoping that those who know more about these things could expand on this.]

Given all the different angles, options, rabbit trails, and possible readings he explores, there is one reading of Baudelaire’s story (Counterfeit Money) that came to my mind fairly early on but that Derrida never mentions.  It is this: what if the friend of the narrator is giving gifts to the narrator (not just one but two gifts)?

The narrators states that “You are right; next to the pleasure of feeling surprise, there is none greater than to cause a surprise.”  In response to this the friend immediately surprises the narrator both by the words he says (“It was the counterfeit coin”) and the way in which he says those words (“he calmly replied”).  This then sparks a series of thoughts in the narrator’s mind — as he tries to make sense of this surprising revelation — which is then interrupted by an even more surprising (and “appalling”) revelation from the friend of the narrator — he repeats the first statement the narrator made (albeit with a few alterations): “Yes, you are right; there is no sweeter pleasure than to surprise a man by giving him more than he hopes for.”

Notice this: the friend does not say that receiving a surprise is a greater pleasure than giving a surprise (as the narrator asserted).  And he is more specific about the kind of surprise that creates pleasure in the one who creates the surprise — giving a person more than he or she hopes for.  Is this not precisely what the friend has now done with the narrator?  He surprised him (twice!).  And this was more than the narrator hoped for — instead of causing him pleasure it appalled him and, rather than making him feel gratitude, it caused him to feel that his friend had committed an unforgivable offense!

One wonders, then, how Derrida neglected this reading for doesn’t it offer us something closer to an example of the “pure gift” he speaks about throughout this text?  A gift that cannot be recognized as a gift, a gift that does not create any sense of debt, exchange or obligation, nothing is given back in order to annul the gift, it disappears in a flash (although that does not mean what has transpired in this event has no longer lasting impact) and so on.

If this is the case, one is left questioning the value of pure(r) gifts.  While Derrida is certainly correct to observe how that which has been named “gift” (by Mauss and others) can very easily cause as much or more harm than help, one wonders if a more pure gift fares any better.  The recipient is appalled and offended.  The giver is judged and condemned.

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Responses

  1. Hi Dan, you don’t know me, but I have been reading your blogs for a bit. I read a poem of yours that was posted on a Christian anarchist facebook group (While You’re Talking about Revolution…). Is there a way I could private message you? I looked for a link here, but couldn’t find one. I am struggling with some of the things you speak about, about my own failure as a ‘radical’. If you are willing, I would love to speak more deeply to you about these things. If not that’s okay too. Thanks.

    • Hi Kevin,

      Is the email address you provided with this comment an active email address? If so, I’ll email you there and we can chat that way, if not, let me know an email address and I’ll get in touch with you.

      Dan

      • Yes Dan, please use that one. And thanks for the quick response.

  2. DanO, I haven’t read either this Derrida or the Baudelaire, but now I feel a bit compelled to give them a look (without Derrida, where would we be?). I have, however, been reading again Derrida’s “The Gift of Death,” and “Circumfession” for a blog post/painting I am doing on Abraham”s self-circumcision, his gift to God, so to speak, and there is some affinity there with what you wrote here, later on that. Today (I forgot to post this) is my birthday (wish you were here). People are coming over, friends and family, etc.. Of course, in the invitation I wrote “please no gifts, your presence is your gift.” Praying all is well, obliged.


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