We could start by assuming that Jacques Derrida´s “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy” (1971) is boring, and laboriously says many things we have come to understand and accept long ago. So it is a text that has grown performatively boring over the years. It is no longer possible, perhaps, to understand its novelty, what could have made it exciting in the first place, and this is the mark of its own success. So be it.
But is there something in it that might still be properly productive, that might still speak in a defamiliarizing way, that might still incorporate metaphors in action, that may be itself more than white mythology?
The difference between “metaphors in action” and “metaphors that have been effaced” is traced back to Hegel as its more explicit provider: “the movement of metaphorization (the origin and then the effacing of the metaphor, the passing from a proper sensible meaning to a proper spiritual meaning through a figurative detour) is nothing but a movement of idealization. And it is covered by the master category of dialectical idealism, namely sublation (Aufhebung), that is, that memory which produces signs and interiorizes them (Erinnerung) by raising up, suppressing and conserving sensible exteriority” (25). Derrida says that this procedure describes “the possibility of metaphysics,” since the schema just mentioned will resolve the opposition “between nature and spirit, nature and history, or nature and freedom, an opposition genealogically linked to that between physis and its opposites, and at the same time to that between the sensible and the spiritual, the sensible and the intelligible, the sensible and sense itself” (25).
In a footnote to that passage Derrida says that it “explains Heidegger’s distrust of the concept of metaphor,” and quotes Der Satz vom Grund: “Once the distinction between the sensible and the non-sensible is recognized to be inadequate, metaphysics loses its authoritative role as a mode of thought . . . The metaphorical exists only within the boundaries of metaphysics” (25-26, n. 22).
This is perhaps the general, not so explicit framing of the essay. If it is a matter of dwelling within the end of metaphysics, what are we to do of metaphor? Let us take an objection to the Hegelian Aufhebung, as it resolves too much, at great cost, and we are no longer willingly paying the cost. Then what? If the metaphorical exists only within the boundaries of metaphysics, can we afford to step out of metaphor? Can we abjure metaphor? Can we demetaphorize terminally? Would that be our only way of dissolving “this sleep of philosophy”? (29)
It is not until many pages later, in Section V of the essay, that the question gets picked up again, at first under a rhetorical question (we can see from the beginning that the answer is going to be “well, no, forget it”): “Might we not dream . . . of some meta-philosophy, of a more general level of discourse which would still be of a philosophical kind, on ‘primary’ metaphors which open up philosophy?” (61).
The question comes up whether there is necessarily a metaphysical destination of all metaphorology—“the same physis, the same sense (sense of being as presence or, what comes to the same, as presence or absence), the same circle, the same fire of the same light that is manifest or hidden, the same turning of the sun” (68). Well, yes, take Descartes. The tenor of his onto-theology will always return to “the circle of the heliotrope” (69), the dominant metaphor, lumen naturale in his case: “a presence disappearing in its own radiance, a hidden source of light, of truth and of meaning, an obliteration of the face of being—such would be the insistent return of that which subjects metaphysics to metaphor” (70).
And yet sublation occurs, and sublation is the final taming of metaphor, its effacement. “Metaphor is included within metaphysics as that which should penetrate to the horizon or to the depths of the proper, and in the end there regain the origin of its truth. The turning of the sun is then seen as a reflecting circle, returning to itself with no loss of sense, no irreversible expenditure” (71): “This end of metaphor is not understood as a death or dislocation, but as an interiorizing anamnesis, a recollection of meaning, a sublation of living metaphoricality into a living property” (72).
But there is another end of metaphor. Derrida is very brief about it. It says of it that, in contrast with the previous end, in which “the death of philosophy is the death of a particular philosophical form in which philosophy itself is reflected on and summed up and in which philosophy, reaching its fulfillment, comes face to face with itself” (74), in this second end there is “the death of a philosophy which does not see itself die” (74).
If the first end is associated to Plato or Hegel, the second one is associated to Nietzsche or Bataille. To their different “heliotropes” (74). Something breaks down in the second one: “Self-destruction here still has the form of generalization, but in this case it is not a matter of extending and confirming a philosophical notion, but rather of deploying it in such a way, without limit, that the borders of what is proper for it are torn from it; consequently the reassuring dichotomy between the metaphorical and the proper is exploded” (74).
The explosion of the heliotrope—it is hard to see it as a goal of philosophy. It happens when a philosophy “does not see itself die,” Derrida says little else. It is the other end of metaphor in philosophy, the one that will not be sublated into heliotropic reconciliation.
I wonder whether the enterprise of demetaphorization, understood as the attempt to push past metaphor in metaphysics, impossible and unfinishable, ceaseless and necessary as it may be, can only cor-respond to the darker heliotropic activity. There is no demetaphorizing the circle of the first heliotrope. It would be a waste of time.