Derrida, Heidegger, and the Question of Poetry




Professor of English and Comparative Literature

Project Summary

My summer research project was on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and how he read and understood the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the subject of poetic language. Thanks to my grant, I supplemented my own readings by spending a week combing through Derrida’s personal library in Princeton. I had the privilege to discover exactly which Heideggerian and poetic texts he read and annotated throughout his lifetime.

Looking through the collected works of Heidegger in several languages to volumes of poetry from Mallarmé to Stevens, I learned a great deal about where Derrida’s stances on Heidegger came from and which poets most captivated his interest. Derrida was a very heavy annotator, so it was an invaluable experience to read some of the marginalia and inserts in his books. In short, I could see so much more than his published texts reveal: I could not only trace the passages he highlighted to the quotations in his own texts, but I could also record all the criticism and commentary he had read but did not cite. Since I had access to the entirety of his library, I was able to find some curious texts that Derrida owned, but that did not appear in his published works. For instance, Derrida had clearly read thinkers such as Vico and Wittgenstein but he hardly ever acknowledged their influence — looking at such an archive opens up so many questions and further avenues of research.

It follows that I learned so much about which texts Derrida read, marked and almost destroyed from an unknowable amount of re-reads, but at the same time I learned a lot about how a philosopher like Derrida read and collected books of many varieties. An archive like this gives you such an intimate look into the resources philosophers have in front of them as they write their own texts. My stay at Princeton was priceless as I learned how to navigate such a voluminous archive and work with fragile printed material. I gained a much greater appreciation for archive research-work and the wealth of information that lies in old library boxes. I left Princeton more interested and confident in my research topic than ever.