I have some friends who like to tell a story about how they drove Jacques Derrida to the airport after a conference at the University of Pittsburgh. The challenged they faced, besides making sure Derrida made his flight, was finding a topic of conversation. After all, they were lowly grad students and he was the father of deconstruction. My friends had recently become parents for the first time, so they turned to the topic foremost in their minds at that time. Derrida was a father himself, and he was sympathetic to the travails of new parents. My friends always concluded their story of their ride with the great philosopher with, "We talked about baby spit up with Jacques Derrida!"
In his first letter in Counterpath, Derrida informs his collaborator, Catherine Malabou, that he can't chose a travel companion because deciding upon a travel companion is "like being asked whether you would consent to being born or to die with this one or that one." Throughout the book Derrida seems rather nervous about traveling, admitting at one point that if it weren't for all his speaking engagements, "I would never have budged." Nevertheless, Derrida would have been an ideal travel companion, especially to Greece, which seems to bring out the best in him. One short chapter, reproduced from a work not translated into English, focuses on Derrida's ruminations on a Greek photographer on the Acropolis. Photography, Derrida shows us, is really about time. When you photograph a foreign city you are taking a shot of a city "already condemned to expire." Should you return to the city, the place recorded in your photographs will be a lost city. In a way, ordinary tourist photographs are really shots of something that is already gone.
I've always been interested in the idea of a philosopher trained in close reading techniques--for what is most of Derrida's work but highly refined close reading in the literary manner--turned loose in the world. Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street exemplifies the idea. I bought Counterpath expecting an odyssey of metaphor, as Derrida puts it at one point. Unfortunately, Malabou diverts us away from the places Derrida visits--New York, Italy, Japan--and back to Derrida's texts. The bulk of Counterpath consists of extended quotations from Derrida's other works. In an effort to give the book a conceptual unity, Malabou focuses on the verb "derive" as it appears in Derrida's work. This isn't a terribly interesting concept, especially when sustained over an entire book. Derrida's original contributions to the book, mostly in the form of letters written to Malabou, are surprisingly prosaic. He says he becomes a different person while traveling ("I'm not sure I've ever traveled , myself, with 'me.'") and he dislikes the commotion of traveling. And that's pretty much as far as he goes.
So we can add travel to the other blank spot in Derrida's life, along with movies--he claimed to watch movies all the time but he has nothing to say about them. Maybe Derrida's true attitudes about travel can be discerned in his remarks on Italy. He tells us that Italy is the only place he visits simply for the sake of traveling there. Yet, he had little to say about the country except it invokes some "beautiful memories," which he declines to share with us. I wonder if Italy, along with the cinema, are the places to which Derrida traveled to take a break from being Derrida. He seems to have never traveled with Derrida.