“A tune beyond us, yet ourselves”: the mystic heart of sport

Rembrandt, “The Golf Player”, 1654
BRENDAN MCNAMEE finds uplift in athleticism

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Arthur Dent makes the startling discovery that white mice, rather than being the objects of experiments carried out by humans, were in fact carrying out an experiment on humans. I wonder if a similar principle might be applied to sport.

Take premiership football as an example. Passions run high. The passion, on the parts of both players and spectators, is primarily for victory. The players receive a huge ego (and cash) boost, and from the fans’ point of view, a win for their team is, by some mysterious process of osmosis, a win for themselves. This lust for victory is so intense that the other source of sporting joy, the quality of the game itself, is often relegated to a secondary position – acknowledged, of course, but seen essentially as a means to an end. This, I would contend, is topsy-turvy. The lust for victory should serve the game, and not the other way around – and this order of things reflects a wider truth about life itself.

“Eternity,” wrote William Blake, “is in love with the productions of time” (eternity here being understood as a state of timelessness, rather than an endless expanse of time). A game of football is a production of time, painstakingly worked out and evolved. But for what purpose?

Two teams are pitched in combat. Naturally, each wants to best the other. This ego-based desire is an intense drive, the need to control which necessitates strict rules which the participants, in their lust for conquest, forever strain against. But from the tension created by this drive and this straining (provided the leash is not broken) can come something that transcends the desires of individuals to achieve personal glory, and this something is what inspires that small and secret part of the sports fan which doesn’t really care who comes out on top. These are moments that justify sport, at its best, being called ‘poetry in motion’ – moments of sheer grace that stop the breath and remain forever etched in the memory, long after the identity of the victor has been forgotten.

These moments are the white mice in the equation, Blake’s glimpses of eternity. The participants imagine that they hone their skills and put in punishing hours of practice and follow rigidly prescribed dietary regimes in order to emerge victorious from the contest. They imagine that those sublime moments of grace (which come, if they come at all, only after such gruelling preparation) are simply a means to victory. And seen from their own personal points of view, they are. Their dreams, we may be sure, are of the glory and adulation that will follow victory. Avid young fans may be enthralled by the skills their heroes display, but they too dream of one day holding aloft the Cup at the end of the contest.  

But there is one crucial difference between the dreams of glory that spur on a team and its fans, and those so memorable moments of grace. It is a difference that, I hope, justifies the use of such a lofty and ethereal term as ‘eternity’ in such a down-to-earth context.

The difference is this: the dreams of glory can be trained for, planned for, worked towards; the moments of grace are spontaneous eruptions, deaf and blind to the plans and schemes of ordinary mortals. To employ the mystical phraseology of Meister Eckhart, it is the difference between attachment and detachment. Eckhart establishes a link between attachment and temporality: “A man attached to things is stretched between a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, or between past and future. He lives in duration, while detachment dwells in ‘this present now.’ A detached man lives in the instant” (Schürmann).

George Best in 1976. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A footballer lives mostly in duration, in the world of plans and projects. The scheme is: project, realise, possess: train for the game, play the game, win the game. If this plan is adhered to, all the way to the end, few tears will be shed if it is achieved without poetry.

But some will. Despite our saturation in the egoism of winning, there is still a quiet voice that longs for what Wallace Stevens calls in ‘The Blue Guitar,’ “a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.” For magic, in effect. We imagine that we invent these conflicts in order to win at them and so stroke our egos, but perhaps they are really invented to allow that magic into the world. Pragmatism is of course vital. In a football match, a player has to be fit and ready for the contest. Such readiness is no guarantee that a sublime moment of genius will emerge, but it more than likely won’t if he is not. And the ego is equally important. Both teams must desperately want to win, otherwise you end up with, at best, a high-class kickabout.

So why refer to these moments as detachment when they so clearly cannot be detached from the time-bound structures through which they come into being? Are they not serving the ultimate purpose of winning the match in the same way as all the other elements of the game such as training, tactics, effort, will, etc? True, they can end up serving it, but seen from the true sports lover’s point of view, this is merely accidental, a by-product. Winning in sport is one kind of joy that needs the corresponding sorrow of losing simply to exist. You can’t have winners without losers; they are two sides of the same coin. Heraclitus’s intriguing aphorism, “Gods and mortals, dying each other’s life, living each other’s death” (Yeats) can find some traction here. The conflict on one level, the time-bound level, is between two teams, but on another, the detached level, it is between gods and mortals. And this conflict is both necessary and creative because the two levels are inextricably intertwined. The gods need the mortals because it is only through media – the game – constructed by mortals that their magic can take form. When that magic occurs, there is a sense in which mortals, as time-bound ego-driven creatures, momentarily cease to exist. Mortals need the gods because without them, they would die of tedium. And indeed, it may be said that, when immersed in our time-bound ego-driven selves, the gods are dead. The gods within us are dead.

In today’s world this vital balance between soul and ego is in danger of collapse, and modern professional football provides a stark demonstration of this. A telling instance of this disruption can be seen in the changing perceptions of the Premiership versus the FA Cup. There was a time when the FA Cup Final was the sporting highlight of the year. Now, it is generally accepted that the Premiership is paramount. This is a significant shift. In the FA Cup, everything rode on one game. There were no second chances (I hear echoes of Robert De Niro’s character in The Deer Hunter with his rather mystic insistence that, in hunting deer, you get only “one shot”). Such an arrangement facilitates a level of concentration and will needed to bring out the best in players, and thus possibly bring about that eclipsing of time that extreme heights of tension can facilitate. In the Premiership, by contrast, a team could conceivably crawl through the season playing pretty dismal football, ‘parking the bus’ at every opportunity (as indeed, one recent Premiership manager was frequently accused of doing), and still come out on top. (For non-fans, ‘parking the bus’ means scoring a goal and immediately throwing everything back into defence, effectively putting up a wall in front of your own goal.)

Imagine a situation where, say, Chelsea and Manchester City reach the final game in the Premiership and Chelsea are one point ahead of City at the top of the table. On the final day, they are playing on different grounds. Being a point ahead, Chelsea can afford to lose their match, but only provided City also lose theirs. Let’s say they have an off-day and play a rubbish game, and lose. Naturally, the fans are devastated. But wait! News come through on their phones that City have also lost, thereby granting Chelsea the title. The fans immediately erupt in joy – having just watched their team play a rubbish game and lose. Are they football fans or accountants?

Roger Federer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Accountancy appears also to be playing a part in the debate currently raging in the tennis world about who is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time): Roger Federer, Raphael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. Nadal has streaked ahead in the numbers game with twenty-two Grand Slam titles, as opposed to a mere (mere?) twenty to Federer and twenty-one to Djokovic. Djokovic, being the youngest of the three, will no doubt catch up (Federer has just retired from professional tennis), but for the view of sport that I’m putting forward here, such numbers are irrelevant (although not to the players themselves, I’m sure). From that angle Federer is the clear winner in this contest, as anyone who has seen him in his glory days would surely agree. Even this writer, with only a spectator’s interest in actual sport (as opposed to philosophically musing about it), could sense something unearthly about his play. David Foster Wallace once wrote an essay called ‘Roger Federer as a Religious Experience.’ I doubt you’ll ever find essays like that being written about Nadal or Djokovic, well-oiled and highly efficient tennis machines that they are.

Mention of The Deer Hunter above calls to mind some other echoes of this idea in the field of the Hollywood movie. Robert Rossen’s 1962 film, The Hustler, features a pool shark called “Fast” Eddie Felson. At one point in the film he tries to explain to his girlfriend the true nature of his passion. It has nothing to do with the money, or with being seen to be the best. These are quantifiable objectives, un-transformable phenomena of the everyday world. What really inspires him, he says, are those rare moments when the pool cue seems to become an extension of his arm, when he can do no wrong, when everything – himself, the game, the world – simply become one, indivisible process, a living work of art.

Bringing religious terminology to the matter, there is the 1981 film about Olympic runners, Chariots of Fire. One of the athletes is a devout Christian who postpones a trip to the Far East, where he is to work as a missionary, in order to take part in the games. When his equally devout wife chides him for this selfish, unchristian attitude, he replies, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure”.  Eternity opens a chink in the armour of time, and Blake’s “love” is made manifest. Or, to put it in more down-to-earth terms, skill and spontaneity join hands and, momentarily, dancer and dance are one.

But these are ‘mere’ fictional examples, you might say. (I put ‘mere’ in quotation marks to highlight an idea best expressed by Alan Watts and directly relevant to this essay: “There is no more telling symptom of the confusion of modern thought than the very suggestion that poetry or mythology can be ‘mere’”.)  Do real athletes feel anything similar? Actually, if a googling of inspirational quotes from top athletes is any yardstick, they mostly don’t. A trawl of over a hundred such quotes threw up less than half a dozen that gave any hint at all of an awareness that something in sport might possibly be more valuable than winning. The vast bulk are on the theme of never giving up, striving, first is everything, second is nowhere, etc, etc. Even when they extol losing it’s only to harden you up for future successes. And I recall a televised interview with Andy Murray some years ago when he was asked if he enjoyed his tennis. After some hesitation, he replied: “I enjoy winning.” (I’ve since heard him say that he does enjoy his tennis but I suspect the PR people have got to him: “Never be negative, Andy! Never be negative!”)  

But not all athletes share this acquisitive mania. The racing driver, Mario Andretti, has a comment that echoes to some extent the line from Chariots of Fire quoted above, though shorn of any religious connotations: “If you have everything under control, you’re not moving fast enough.” The tennis player, Arthur Ashe, is hovering around the heart of the matter with this comment: “You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.” And the American gymnast, Mary Lou Retton, has gifted us this pithy comment: “A trophy carries dust. Memories last forever.” (Incidentally, the fact that such remarks are so rare only bolsters my argument that this way of looking at sport is sadly, and increasingly, undervalued.)

It’s intriguing, I think, that the quote approaching closest to a sense of the mystic heart of sport should come from a gymnast. Gymnastics shares with my two fictional examples of pool and running the distinction of being one of the rare sports that one effectively plays alone. There are competitions, of course, but that horizontal element of the game is thoroughly earthbound – egos competing with one another (as Arthur Ashe recognises). The other, vertical, element is where the player’s mind, the player’s body and the sport itself come together like three notes forming a chord. It’s as if the gods had a committee meeting one day and said, “This rough-and-tumble of contact sports allows the ego too much dominance. Our voices are rarely heard. We need to finesse the idea.” And so they came up with pool and running and gymnastics – all sports requiring deep levels of silence, deep enough for, now and then, the music of the spheres to be heard. And, in a moment of true inspiration, they also came up with golf.

Golf! do I hear you say? That symbol of suburban complacency and silly jumpers? But that’s to see it only from the outside. In a wonderful essay on golf, ‘Tips on a Trip,’ John Updike, having run through and dismissed all the secondary definitions and purposes of golf – a hobby, a profession, a pleasure, a walk in the country – finally reveals it to be “a trip”:

 A non-chemical hallucinogen, golf breaks the human body into components so strangely elongated and so tenuously linked, yet with anxious little bunches of hyper-consciousness and undue effort bulging here and there, along with rotating blind patches and a sort of cartilaginous euphoria – golf so transforms one’s somatic sense, in short, that truth itself seems about to break through the exacerbated and as it were debunked fabric of mundane reality.

That final phrase – “truth itself seems about to break through the exacerbated and as it were debunked fabric of mundane reality” – catches the essence of what I’m calling here the mystic heart of sport. And it’s by no means confined to professionals.

Updike tells two intriguing golf stories in his essay. The first is of how he went to a professional coach one time in order to improve his play. The coach gave him some simple advice about the placing of his feet. “That’s all?” Updike asks. “That’s all,” the coach says. Sceptical, but determined to try it out, Updike follows the coach’s instruction – and finds that his game improves immensely. But here’s the intriguing part: he feels thoroughly dissatisfied. The game seems now to be confined to his feet and it’s as if the rest of his body has been anaesthetised: “I couldn’t internalise it . . . All richness had fled the game”. And so he returns to his old losing ways, but feels better for it. I would have found this story baffling had it not reminded me of a poker player I once knew who told me that he could spend a night playing poker and come out with a loss, but still feel better than on many another night when he’d emerge a winner. The result is not the point. The point is what happens within.

Updike’s second story is of how he once accidentally hit a perfect shot. He goes on to explain: “In this mystical experience, some deep golf revelation was doubtless offered me, but I have never been able to grasp it, or to duplicate the shot”. And that’s the point: such magical moments cannot be replicated. They cannot be quantified and put into manuals. They happen. They are gifts, moments when “the tyranny of causality is suspended, and men are free”. “If I knew where poems come from” the Irish poet Michael Longley once said, “I’d go there.” Sports people must often feel much the same.

The scientifically-minded might be inclined to dismiss any such airy talk of mystical experience by pointing to the correlations of such phenomena with various activities going on within the brain. It’s all got to do with jumping neurons and synapses, they’ll say. But this kind of “nothing buttery,” as the philosopher Mary Midgely calls it, in which we declare emergent realities to be “nothing but” the things in which we perceive them (a painting is “nothing but” smears of pigment on a canvas; music is “nothing but” differently pitched vibrations in the air), can be just as easily turned on its head so that instead of saying, “nothing but,” we can say, “not only but also.” A painting is not only smears of pigment on a canvas, but also a deeply enriching and mysterious experience. The experience may correlate with certain neural activities which can be quantified, but that fact alone does nothing to give you any sense of the experience itself.

This “dipsomania for the factual,” as Robert Musil calls it, echoes the conflict being discussed in this essay. You can’t blame science, of course, for devoting itself to the factual – that’s its job – but scientism, the conviction that only the factual can give us any real truth, is the malignant growth of a useful tool into a dogma. When it comes to permeate society, as it does today, something valuable is lost. In sport, this loss is disguised by the fact that such overwhelming concentration on winning – fuelled by ego and greed, both quantifiable entities – improve sporting standards immeasurably, but what becomes ever rarer in this over-heated atmosphere is the “eerie effortlessness of a good shot” (Updike), to put it at its simplest. Roger Federer making top class opponents appear lead-footed, David Gower hitting a boundary with the careless grace of a man brushing off a fly, George Best weaving through five defenders as if he was bodiless – there’s a hint of immortality in such moments. “There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time,” Milan Kundera’s narrator says in his novel, Immortality (4), when he is startled by the sight of a timeless girlish gesture emerging from the body of a timeworn elderly woman. It is that part, I believe, that is reflected back to us in moments of sporting genius, and sounds a deep resonant bell within.

Robert Musil tried to knit together these two elements of the phenomenon – the ethereal and the down-to-earth, the mystical and the scientific. Ulrich, the hero of The Man Without Qualities, gets set upon by three thugs in the street one night. As an ex-solder himself, he responds vigorously, but they get the better of him in the end. As he picks himself up, he is rescued by a woman in a passing coach, to whom he proceeds to expound upon the experience in his usual forensic fashion.

Of course he now launched into a lively defence of his experience, which was not, as he explained to the motherly beauty, to be judged solely by its outcome. The fascination of such a fight, he said, was the rare chance it offered in civilian life to perform so many varied, vigorous, yet precisely coordinated movements in response to barely perceptible signals at a speed that made conscious control quite impossible. Which is why, as every athlete knows, training must stop several days before a contest, for no other reason than that the muscles and nerves must be given time to work out the final coordination among themselves, leaving the will, purpose and consciousness out of it and without any say in the matter. . . If by some unlucky chance the merest ray of reflection hits this darkness, the whole effort is invariably doomed.

So far, so rational, you might say, and nothing there that any sports psychologist would find fault with. They call it being ‘in the zone.’ But Ulrich, as much a mystic as he is a scientist, goes on:

Basically, he now maintained, this experience of almost total ecstasy or transcendence of the conscious mind is akin to experiences now lost but known in the past to the mystics of all religions, which makes it a kind of contemporary substitution for an eternal human need. Even if it is not a very good substitute it is better than nothing, and boxing or similar kinds of sport that organise this principle into a rational system are therefore a species of theology. . .

Broadening the idea out to include spectators as well as participants, it may be no accident that the words ‘happen’ and ‘happy’ have the same root: ‘hap’. A great sporting event is a happening, an event, because of its anticipated elements of spontaneity, its vibrant potentiality, the anticipated, longed-for lifting of the soul out of the mundane treadmill of linear time. For many, these are moments of the greatest, most intense happiness, when life is lived – if only by proxy – on the edge. It’s why people climb mountains and skydive. But the exhilaration that follows success comes at the price of risking the hollow emptiness of defeat, and winners and losers alike might do well to heed Ulrich’s words in the passage quoted above: the experience is “not to be judged solely by its outcome.” The Yorkshire writer John Braine once compared success to strawberries: enjoy them while they’re in season, he said, but don’t imagine you can live on them (trophies carry dust).

What you can live on (what all sports fans live on, in fact) is the anticipation of success, the hope. Whether it’s anticipation of the outcome of a single game or a broader anticipation stretching over a whole season (and containing a host of smaller anticipations along the way), that tension is like a taut string creating a music all its own. But unless you’re some kind of Zen master, the problem is that you can’t really separate wanting to win from actually winning. Or losing. The pleasure of all that anticipation hinges on the actual outcome, though the outcome is really not the point; the real point (from the gods’ point of view) is the anticipation itself, the tension, the thrill of following all those “varied, vigorous and precisely coordinated movements in response to barely perceptible signals.” The gods don’t care a whit about us as individuals. We’re expendable, mere channels for what Yeats called “the passions,” and sports are what he called “forms created by passion to unite us to ourselves”. It’s an irresolvable paradox (except perhaps in fiction): in order for the passions to reach their height, the carriers of the passion have to remain unaware of their true source, and be conned into believing that the momentary egoistic thrill of winning is what it’s really all about.

Richard Attenborough, playing the commander who organises the mass break-out in The Great Escape, intuits a similar truth at the end of the film, after being captured by the Germans. Talking to his friend (minutes before they are both machined-gunned to death), and not sounding at all downbeat about the capture, he says, “D’you know, Andy, all this, Tom, Dick, Harry [the three tunnels they’d spent months secretly digging], it’s kept me alive.” He realises that getting re-captured (and hence failing to win the match, as it were) matters less than the steady throb of hope and anticipation that filled up all the time leading to the escape. And if the escape had been successful, or if the Germans had not been so unsporting as to kill him, and he’d lived to tell the story to his grandchildren, it would surely be the planning, the tactics, the secrecy, the tension of the escape preparations that would fill his memory, rather than the fact the attempt itself resulted in either success or failure, those “two imposters,” as Rudyard Kipling has famously called them.

Hermann Broch’s complex modernist novel, The Death of Virgil, dealing with a poet from two thousand years ago, is about as far from modern sport as you could hope to get. Yet Virgil’s central dilemma echoes the tension I’ve been speaking of here between the timebound (quantifiable results) and the eternal (spontaneous happenings, potentiality), or between the professional and the inspired amateur.

On the eve of his death, Virgil wants to burn his greatest work, The Aeneid, because he believes he has betrayed the essence of his gift, which was not so much the actual manuscript of the work as the dynamic creativity that brought it into being. He calls the actual work, an artefact that belongs to the world of time, “un-art”: “Oh, in his own life, in his own work, he had known the seduction of un-art, the seduction of all substitution which put the thing created in the place of that which creates, the game in the place of communion, the fixed thing in the place of the ever-vital principle, beauty in the place of truth” (italics added).

Virgil’s “un-art” is the statistics-obsessed nature of modern professional sport where winning is all, and this attitude is, I would contend, a betrayal of the soul of sport, even though, paradoxically, that very betrayal is largely responsible for the incredibly high standard that much modern sport exhibits. But the high standards themselves can be something of a red herring, from the participants’ point of view, if not the spectators. Spontaneity is too unpredictable and there is too much money at stake. A certain minimum standard is, of course, necessary, but magic was as likely to appear on a mud-caked football field of the seventies, when players happily juxtaposed professional games with copious amounts of beer and burgers, as on today’s pristine green carpets, when they are all slaves to strict dietary regimes. George Best was no ascetic! And to return for a moment to the tennis world, any future contenders for the number of Grand Slams won by Nadal and Djokovic will have to follow similarly rigid training and finely-tuned technical regimes, most likely at the cost of any natural spontaneity that they may have had to begin with. Future Federers will have no hope of competing, though I’m guessing that they would be the spectators’ favourites.

Echoes of this inner conflict can be found even beyond the confines of sport and art. If we call the necessary treadmill of linear time ‘order’ (in sport, tactics, set pieces, rigid team formations etc) and sublime moments of rapture ‘chaos’ (sport’s unpredictable ‘poetry in motion’), then the essential creative tension between the two might be summed up in an elegant formula: order minus chaos equals death; chaos minus order equals madness. Imagine a high-stakes football match with no rules! And if Virgil had got his way about burning The Aeneid, no echo of that creative genius would ever inspire another soul. The physicist David Bohm put the idea like this: “If you had absolute creativity – absolute novelty with no past – then nothing would ever exist because it would all vanish at the very moment of creation” (Weber). Modern science sees this creative tension, or something vaguely similar to it, as constituting the very source of the universe’s existence. Richard Holloway provides a succinct encapsulation of the idea:

It is the precise balance of two great forces that creates the right conditions for life to exist. The expansive force of the Big Bang spreads the universe out, while the contractive force of gravity pulls it back together. If the gravitational force [order] were too high, the universe would appear, but in a microsecond gravity would pull everything back into a Big Crunch. If the expansion rate were too high [chaos], then the universe would stretch at such a rate that gravity would be unable to form the stars and galaxies from whose dust carbon-based life evolved. [. . .] These delicate adjustments do not only refer to the earliest instance, but to the continuing history of the world and its detailed processes.

One of those detailed processes is the phenomenon of sport.

The philosopher E.M. Cioran has written, “History divides itself in two: a former time when people felt pulled towards the vibrant nothingness of divinity and now, when the nothingness of the world is empty of divine spirit”. It may be that in our ultra-secular, numbers-obsessed Western world, whose oppressive nothingness the advertisers keep us distracted from, sport occasionally affords one opportunity to touch, or to witness, the sublime heights that were once the province of religion. But it appears to be a losing battle. The white mice may have to think up another concept.


Blake, William. Complete Writings. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. Oxford: OUP, 1966.

Broch, Hermann. The Death of Virgil. Trans. Jean Starr Untermeyer. 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Cioran, E. M. Tears and Saints. Trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Holloway, Richard. Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2004.

Hudson, Hugh. Chariots of Fire. Screenplay by Colin Welland. 20th Century Fox, 2004.

Kundera, Milan. Immortality. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Trans. Sophie Wilkins. London: Picador, 1997.

Schürmann, Reiner. Wandering Joy: Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Philosophy. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2001.

Stevens, Wallace. Selected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1953.

Sturges, John. The Great Escape. Screenplay by James Clavell and W. R. Burnett. The Mirisch Company, 1963.

Updike, John. Picked Up Pieces. 1977. New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.

Watts, Alan. Myth and Ritual in Christianity. 1954. London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.

Weber, Renee. Dialogues With Scientists and Sages: The Search for Unity. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Yeats, W. B. A Vision. 1937. Rev. ed. 1962. London: Macmillan, 1962.

The dark back of time – deconstruction in literature and religion

The Good and Evil Angels, by William Blake
BRENDAN MCNAMEE says that deconstruction is as old as its opposite

Eternity is in love with the productions of time

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Deconstruction is a modern cliché, but it is something much older and more substantive than a passing academic fad. Since it came to prominence in the sixties and seventies the word has been bandied about in general parlance, losing most of its meaning in the process.

It usually indicates a process of taking something apart and not much more than that, so you have films like Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, which consists merely of a character’s evisceration, and restaurants serving desserts called deconstructed cheesecake, which consists of little more than components of cheesecake separated on a plate.

More seriously, it’s often seen as a destructive rejection of cherished beliefs and certainties. But that word ‘certainties’ is the hinge. Certainties have a way of subtly devolving from life-enhancing structures to stifling and destructive oppressions. An attractive form can hide a rotting interior. Many people instinctively recognise this. If cherished lines from widely beloved poets and musicians are an indication of this recognition then Leonard Cohen’s most oft-quoted line, ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,’ from his song ‘Anthem’, indicates that deconstruction, as I will read it here, is already subconsciously understood and valued by many. Letting the light in on airless, out-dated structures and practices: that’s the essence of deconstruction.

In this essay, I shall look at deconstruction through a variety of literary quotations, ranging from Heraclitus to Heaney, which show that the practice has been around for as long as philosophy itself, and that it is, and always has been, an integral and vital part of both art and religion. I read it, in fact, as a modern secular form of mysticism, what the American academic John D. Caputo calls ‘religion without religion’ (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion).  Caputo and Jacques Derrida, the putative originator of deconstruction, will be my main (actually, my only) links to the practice of deconstruction as it is understood in academia. My focus will be on how it manifests in the world beyond. In the second part of the essay I will attempt to show how deconstruction can be seen at work in widely disparate instances of literature and film.


Without consciousness, there is, to all intents and purposes, no world. On that basis, it can be asserted that all time is contained in the present, the past as memory, the future as anticipation. The present consists of two elements, consciousness and nature, the world within and the world without, subject and object. The world without we call ‘actuality’, all the stuff that makes up the visible universe. We see it through this mirror called consciousness. The stuff changes all the time; the mirror remains the same (that is, the phenomenon of consciousness underlies the individual manifestations of that consciousness through sentient beings in time). Consciousness, then, is another word for eternity.

Wherever there is consciousness, it is always now. But because it only knows itself by its productions, the stuff of actuality, the productions themselves come to be considered paramount, come to be thought of as reality itself. And they are necessary. Crops must be planted, cities built, cultures and laws devised. Structure reigns. But with time these structures become stifling, burdensome, tedious – the weight of tradition, the boredom of habit. The mirror becomes fogged. Deconstruction is the wiping of the mirror. Deconstruction is eternity gasping for breath.

Vladimir Nabokov

When asked whether he believed in God, Vladimir Nabokov said, ‘I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more’ (Strong Opinions, p45).

Is this what lies at the heart of deconstruction? A sense that the world as it is described in language is missing some vital element, some element that cannot be captured in language, but the vague awareness of which is what largely drives that described world of language? As the theologian Paul Tillich puts it, ‘It is the riddle and the depth of all expression that it both reveals and hides at the same time’ (Art, Creativity, and the Sacred, p221). Derrida echoes that idea in these words: ‘We are dispossessed of the longed-for presence in the gesture of language by which we attempt to seize it’ (Acts of Literature, p78). Poetic language could be seen as both a lament at this dispossession and a desperate attempt to overcome it all in one.

You can extrapolate from Nabokov’s sentence to life itself: ‘I am more than I can express in words, and the little that I can express could not be expressed, were I not more.’ That ‘more’ is what divides the world between materialists and idealists. For materialists, the world we see around us is quite fascinating enough; for idealists there is something essential missing. For idealists (believers and non-believers alike), that indefinable ‘more’ is what keeps the ship afloat. Like a string on a well-tuned guitar it keeps life at a tension, a tension necessary to create the music of life itself. ‘The harmony past knowing sounds more deeply than the known,’ as Heraclitus has said (Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, p31). Isn’t this why we make art? As Steve Toltz puts it, ‘We make art because being alive is a hostage situation in which our abductors are silent and we cannot even intuit their demands’ (Quicksand, p16).

Take Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Where, or what, would Beckett’s tramps be without Godot to wait for? They wouldn’t be anywhere. They wouldn’t be. The essence of Godot is his non-arrival, just as – perhaps – the essence of God is his unknowability, his unattainability, and, almost certainly, his non-existence. By his non-existence I mean that God may simply be the idea of God. As Henri de Lubac put it, ‘We do not have desire for God; we are that desire. It is imprinted on our created nature’ (Mystery of the Supernatural pps176-77). Just as Godot is needed to keep the tramps on stage, so is the idea of God (or whatever unattainable ideal one substitutes for God) needed to keep us all trudging through the wastes of time. (Absence pervades presence, may indeed be the larger part of presence, much in the way that dark energy may be the larger part of the universe, even though it cannot be detected.)

More optimistically, the idea may be what’s needed to transform those wastes of time into something more like a garden. True religion, like true art, is alchemy. The effect of great art, regardless of what actual events are being portrayed, is exhilaration. In this sense, all great artists are mystics, and art is the most accessible form of mysticism we have, and one of the most effective ‘mirror-cleaners’ we have. Likewise, religion. Seen in this light, both art and religion are forms of deconstruction. Seen in another light, of course – when form overrides mystery, when significance declines into meaning – they are very much in need of deconstruction.

In his book, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, John D. Caputo calls deconstruction love. Love itself cannot be deconstructed because it is not a thing, it is not static. Love happens. How many stories there are that demonstrate this by showing love as a disruptive force: love across the race divide, the class divide, the cultural divide, always disrupting accepted ‘truths’ of life, which of course are not truths at all but merely comfort blankets masquerading as truths. Love underlies all social and cultural expressions of it, which are just that: expressions of an intangible reality, but not the thing itself (much like consciousness and the productions of time).

There’s a scene in a recent sitcom, called Hold the Sunset, which subtly illustrates this idea. John Cleese plays a crusty old codger with a reputation for sarcasm. One of his neighbours, often the butt of his jokes, is a dog lover. One day, the Cleese character encounters this neighbour out walking accompanied only by the dog’s leash. A brief conversation conveys the information that the dog has died, but the neighbour hasn’t quite got over it yet and it comforts him to walk with the leash. Cleese makes some sympathetic comment about this, which the man, knowing Cleese’s general outlook, takes to be mockery, but Cleese hastens to reassure him that it isn’t, that he understands fully the man’s actions, that love is love, whatever the nature or character of the recipient. Finally, the neighbour gets his point and says, ‘You mean, love can’t tell the difference.’

Love can’t tell the difference. In that sense, love doesn’t actually exist until it finds a recipient, just as deconstruction is not a ‘thing,’ and doesn’t actually exist until it has some established ‘truth’ to work on. Just as eternity doesn’t exist until it finds an expression through the productions of time. You can’t have a mirror without a dark back, and vice versa. Perhaps the same thing is meant when people say God is love. God doesn’t exist – or not for us, anyway – until he is manifested in the world. Manifested as the world?  

There is an old Sufi legend about a certain Arab who died and left seventeen camels, which he bequeathed to his three sons in the following proportions: to the oldest a half; to the second a third; to the youngest a ninth. The three sons were disputing violently about the proper division of the camels when a stranger rode up to them from the desert and asked them the cause of their anger. When they had explained it to him he said: ‘But this is very simple. I shall give you my camel; so now you have eighteen instead of seventeen, and the sum is easily done. The eldest will take nine, the second six and the youngest two.’ When the three sons had each taken the camels allotted to him, they found that one was left over. ‘And therefore,’ said the stranger, ‘I can now take my own camel back again, and yet leave you with no further cause of dispute.’

This expresses the same idea as Blake’s aphorism, cited at the start. Time is where we live, the land of the tangible (camels and churches, governments, games, art, everything), but all of these productions, all these things, only make sense in light of an intangible force lying behind them. Deconstruction is the attempt to keep that mysterious force in play, to keep that crack open without which life would become stale and airless. In the absence of deconstruction, when there is too much order, too much rigidity, something snaps: ‘Tedium is the worst pain. The mind lays out the world in blocks and the hushed blood waits for revenge’ (Grendel, John Gardner, p109).

The mind lays out the world in blocks: this is a good definition of the world’s structures, whether cultural, social, literary, judicial or whatever. When they become set in their ways and fail to respond to changing circumstances or to the nuances of a situation’s contexts, as they invariably do due to human laziness and complacency, then boredom and discontent sets in. Eventually, something snaps. Modernism in its many forms – cultural, social, political – was perhaps the loudest snap of the twentieth century.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer once compiled an extensive list of opposing qualities, entities and concepts that he labelled hip/square, such as wild/practical, romantic/classic, instinct/logic, a question/an answer, self/society, associative/sequential and many more, all of which can be seen to be, in varying degrees, reflections of the chaos/order divide (Advertisements for Myself, pps346-48). The idea of deconstruction could be seen as the academic version of the corresponding societal movement that shook the sixties. Revolution was in the air. But it’s important not to forget the second member of the pairing. One of Mailer’s pairs of opposites, self/society, calls to mind a sentence from Machiavelli: ‘No stability without an institution; no progress without an individual.’You need some degree of stability or there would be no possibility of civilisation of any kind. So you need institutions (something Derrida was always at pains to stress). But you also need innovative individuals who insist on disrupting things when those institutions become stale or unworkable. And where would the innovative, deconstructing individuals be without institutions to work against? You can’t jump into the air without a ground to spring from.

Another, and perhaps more helpful, way of expressing the chaos/order divide is to call it a dynamic/static divide. In Lila: An Enquiry into Morals, Robert Pirsig proposed this as a more fundamental divide in life than the subject/object divide, which is the one that prevails in our current materialistic and common sense based world. And the deeper you delve into deconstruction, the more you find it corresponds to this division: the structures of the world, whether social, cultural, legal, literary, political, etc, all tend toward the static. Rules get laid down, they seem to work (they keep chaos at bay, they explain so much), so they are adopted with fervour and adhered to rigidly. Too rigidly. History is littered with the appalling results of this rigidity, this fundamentalism, mostly in the fields of politics and religion. Every effort to crack open such petrified structures is a form of deconstruction.

Theodore Adorno once described the relationship between empirical reality and works of art as a form of redemption: ‘Everything will be just as it is and yet wholly different’ (John Banville, Athena, p105). Everything will be as it is – that is, the structures of the world will not change in their essence, they will still be structures and continue to serve whatever purpose they were constructed to serve, but they will be wholly different because seen with different eyes, eyes that are open to potential, to nuance, to change. There will still be seventeen camels, but the brothers will have no cause for dispute because their eyes will be open to the possibility of an eighteenth camel, a possibility that, without having to exist in any material sense, redeems all that does so exist. Deconstruction then could be seen as a kind of open-ended, undefined faith.

John Banville

John Banville has written a radio play in which Isaac Newton, the inventor of the calculus (and also a devoted alchemist), says the following:

The calculus operates upon the premise of a closer and closer approach to infinity. Infinity, however, may not be approached. Infinity is, and there’s an end of it. Yet the calculus works . . .


The same might be said for language and reality. Language operates upon the premise of a closer and closer approach to reality. Reality, however, may not be approached. Reality is, and there’s an end of it. Yet language works . . . Up to a point, anyway. There is still that tantalising mystery that keeps escaping, that no word seems equal to. But a word had to be found, nonetheless, so we came up with the word God. Yes, that’ll do. God is the name of and cause of everything that is. That settles the question, right?

No, very rightly wrong, as Beckett would say. There is no answer. ‘God’ is just another deferral. The word might have been fine had it not been taken for an answer. ‘He should have had a name that sounded like a question,’ as Cees Nooteboom puts it (Rituals, p42). That would have put deconstruction at the heart of all that is. In the Hindu mythology Prajapati, Lord of the Creatures, has a secret name, Ka, which in Sanskrit means, ‘who?’ ‘Prajapati is the god who has no identity, who is the origin of all insoluble paradoxes’ (Roberto Calasso, Ardor, p8).


Consider these two statements, the first from the Spanish writer, Javier Cercas, the second from Clarice Lispector, the Ukranian-born, Brazilian writer sometimes referred to as the Brazilian Kafka:

‘Literature is always anti-literary.’ (The Blind Spot, p36)

‘There’s one thing I understand: writing has nothing to do with literature.’ (The Paris Review, interview)

Both these statements are saying the same thing, though this is disguised by the fact that the word ‘literature’ is used in opposing senses by each writer. Cercas’s ‘literature’ is Lispector’s ‘writing’ and Lispector’s ‘literature’ is Cercas’s ‘literary.’ Both statements are intuitive expressions of deconstruction. This is best explained by recourse to Robert Pirsig’s division of life into what he calls dynamic quality and static quality. Applied to literature, this is the division between pure creativity as it happens, and the result of that creativity as it appears in the world, what Annie Dillard has called ‘the creative process frozen with its product in its arms’ (Living by Fiction, p164).

Cercas is using the word ‘literature’ to refer to the creative process, and by ‘literary’ in the term anti-literary, he means the ‘business’ of literature, the criticisms, the essays, the classification into genres and literary periods, the endless chatter about books, very little of which can claim close kinship with the creative process itself (though some of it can: those readers who, unaware of what they should or should not approve of according to the official tastemakers, are genuinely enraptured by some work or other. Such readers, it could be said, are partaking in that very creative process itself. As Borges has put it, the man who reads a line of Shakespeare becomes Shakespeare. Mind you, that would have to be a man with a very fresh eye). And Lispector is echoing this sentiment. Her ‘writing’ is Cercas’s ‘literature.’  Dillard’s image is a nice one. The frozen product is the hardened lava at the foot of a volcano. The volcano itself has little interest in poring over the remains of its effusions at the foot of the hill. This is why you will often hear writers and artists expressing little interest in past work, however lauded it might be by their audiences. It’s the process itself that truly enraptures them. It also explains the even more common expression from artists that they often feel themselves to be mere conduits for some mysterious force that uses them to reveal itself in the world.[1]


‘You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass.’

Seamus Heaney, ‘Postscript’

‘There is an absence, real as presence.’

John Montague, ‘A Flowering Absence’

Wittgenstein began his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with the sentence, ‘The world is all that is the case,’ and ended it with this one, ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.’ Materialists have concentrated on the first sentence, and the detailed adumbrations that follow it; for idealists, on the other hand, the final sentence is the point where things begin to get interesting.  What is it that we cannot speak of? And if we cannot speak of it, how are we aware of it in the first place? Could it be that this mysterious non-entity is what creates everything that is the case (everything that can be spoken of) to begin with? Could that be the reason for its eternal presence (as an absence) in our minds? This is an established religious idea: the world is God’s mirror, which God needs in order to see himself. In order to be? Two of Christianity’s most mystical theologians, the fourteenth century German Dominician, Meister Eckhart and the ninth century Irish philosopher, John Scotus Eriugena, would seem to think so:

This is why I pray to God to rid me of God, for my essential being is above God in so far as we comprehend God as the principle of creatures. . . And if I myself were not, God would not be either; that God is God, of this I am the cause. If I were not, God would not be God

Eckhart, quoted in Dermot Moran, The Irish Mind, p91

It follows that we ought not to understand God and the creature as two things distinct from one another, but as one and the same. For both the creature, by subsisting, is in God; and God, by manifesting Himself, in a marvellous and ineffable manner creates Himself in the creature

Eriugena, ibid. p91

This can be put in less religiously-charged language. This is Alex Dubilet:

The infinite names not a transcendence that ruptures the self-sufficiency of the subject, but an immanent and impersonal process that precedes and exceeds the very difference between self and other. [. . . a hurry through which known and strange things pass] . . . subjective life is always already a deformation, a life made to suffer by being forced into itself


Lawrence Durrell puts the same idea like this: ‘People are not separate individuals as they think, they are variations on themes outside themselves’ (Constance, p378). Love is perhaps the strongest of those ‘themes’ and might go some way toward explaining the ever-yearning nature of humans. We are like Philip Larkin’s young steers, ‘always seeking purer water, / Not here but anywhere’ (‘Wires’). Or, perhaps, anywhere but here, here being the ‘subjective life’ that is ‘always already a deformation’ because it knows intuitively that this sense of separation, of individuality, is unnatural, or incomplete.


‘Deconstruction arises in response to an imperative that has to do with the ‘mystery’ of the impossible, not merely the ‘problem’ of the possible’ (Caputo, lix). The idea of mystery lies at the heart of literature. Take Jorge Luis Borges’ definition: ‘Literature can be defined by the sense of the imminence of a revelation which does not in fact occur’ (Selected Non-Fictions, p346). To a certain mindset, this might seem thoroughly pointless. If the revelation does not in fact occur, haven’t you just wasted your time? This attitude, sadly, is very much the prevailing one today, and partly explains, I think, why literature is in decline. Definiteness reigns, and facts are king. But Borges is talking about living within an atmosphere of mystery wherein every aspect of the world is charged with a mysterious significance. He clarifies this in a re-statement of the idea:

Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces worn by time, certain twilights and certain places, all want to tell us something, or have told us something we shouldn’t have lost, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact (ibid. p346).

If we are attuned to those ‘known and strange things’ spoken of by Seamus Heaney in the lines above, then we are deconstructionists by default. Those lines continue, ‘As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open’ (‘Postscript’). That, I would say, is a good definition of deconstruction’s purpose – catching the heart off guard, and blowing it open.


‘These things never happened, but are always,’wrote Sallust on myth (Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, epigraph). Is myth itself a form of deconstruction? Myths are eternal truths underlying the more tangible realities of life, but they are unamenable to being captured in systems (unless mistaken as actual events). They are continually re-interpreted so that they continue to speak to peoples across a wide range of cultures. They never happened, so they can never take their assigned place in history; they inform all that does happen, giving it significance beyond the time in which actual events take place. ‘What has never anywhere come to pass, that alone never grows old,’ as Schiller has put it (Schopenhauer, p247). It’s been said about Shakespeare, for instance, that we don’t read Shakespeare, Shakespeare reads us. Shakespeare deconstructs us.

 ‘What has never anywhere come to pass, that alone never grows old.’ This is as good a definition of consciousness, or eternity, as one could ask for. The trouble with our normal understanding of consciousness is that, so thoroughly entwined is it with the stuff of life, we always think of it as consciousness of something. It is literally impossible to imagine consciousness alone (‘Consciousness-without-an-object’ is how one philosopher-mystic, Franklin Merrill-Wolff, describes the mystic state.) Try it and see. The nearest you can come is to imagine an empty space, but even this is ‘something.’ The problem appears to be that as long as you are consciously engaged in imagining, then you are imagining ‘something.’

Roberto Calasso

Hindu mythology can be helpful here. In Hinduism, brahman is ultimate reality. Roberto Calasso describes it thus:

But the brahman, whatever that might be, must necessarily be divided into two parts: the ‘unmanifest’ and the ‘manifest.’ The one is therefore always two. . . The brahman is the wild goose that ‘in rising from the water, it does not extract one foot. If it did, neither today nor tomorrow would exist.’ The water is the unmanifest brahman, the wild goose is the manifest brahman. (K, pps47-48)

The unmanifest brahman here would be consciousness alone, Merrill-Wolff’s consciousness-without-an-object; manifest brahman is the stuff of consciousness, the actual world we inhabit, the wild goose. But the wild goose, independent though it appears to be (and is, according to materialists), has one foot in the water, without which ‘neither today nor tomorrow would exist.’ Time itself, that is, arises from consciousness, the consciousness that is unmanifest, and can never be apprehended, because it is what is doing the apprehending, and what it apprehends is the wild goose, the actual world. So when Caputo talks about ‘the mystery of the impossible,’ this unmanifest aspect of reality is what I take him to mean. It stands apart from ‘the problem of the possible’ because the problem of the possible is the kind of problem that science and reason are equipped to deal with, the definable problems of the actual world. And, again as Caputo says, deconstruction (like art and religion) ‘arises in response to’ this mystery of the impossible. Derrida’s ‘trace,’ that mysterious intangible shadow he finds behind all language, is perhaps the wild goose’s dim awareness of the water from which it gains its life.

Deconstruction in film and literature

Purity is the malign inversion of innocence. Innocence is love of being, smiling acceptance of both celestial and earthly sustenance, ignorance of the infernal antithesis between purity and impurity. Satan has turned this spontaneous and as it were native saintliness into a caricature which resembles him and is the converse of its original. . . . Religious purification, political purges, preservation of racial purity – there are numerous variations on this atrocious theme, but all issue with monotonous regularity in countless crimes whose favourite instrument is fire, symbol of purity and symbol of hell.

Michel Tournier, The Erl-King, p. 70

If deconstruction is, as John D. Caputo has it, love, and, as Derrida says, ‘a response to a call,’ then the Bourne Trilogy can be seen as a subtle cinematic expression of deconstruction in action, and an instance of the power of love.

Jason Bourne is purity personified. He is a pure machine, trained to do one thing and not to let any extraneous factors, such as emotion or complexity, cloud that purpose. The purity derives from an idea. A noble idea. In this case, the idea of the American Way. Freedom. Democracy. It could just as easily be the idea of communism, or Aryan supremacy, or Islamic fundamentalism, or nationhood, anything, that is, with the power to capture people’s imaginations and inspire them to build an impregnable structure housing that idea. Nothing can be allowed to threaten or undermine this structure in any way. Soldiers must be trained to defend it. To be effective, such soldiers must never allow the muddle of human emotions to distract them from their purpose. Hence – ultimately – such soldiers as Jason Bourne. The shell protecting the purity of the purpose must be impenetrable.

But, thankfully, the shell is never impenetrable. There is a crack in everything. The pivotal moment of the Bourne Trilogy occurs towards the end of the first movie, The Bourne Identity, in a flashback scene wherein Bourne remembers the event that set him adrift on the ocean with two bullets in his back and a serious bout of amnesia. He is on a mission to execute an African leader on a ship. All prepared to pull the trigger on his sleeping victim, he suddenly finds himself looking into the clear innocent eyes of a five-year-old child – and the shell cracks. Something penetrates to the core, the core that perhaps attracted him to the purity of his cause in the first place. And this core is innocence in Tournier’s sense of the word, an instinctive recognition that life, in all its tumultuous variety and chaos, is the true value, and that to force this wondrous incorrigible plurality into a pre-conceived shape is the real sin. Trying to put order on the chaos of life is a natural and necessary human impulse, but it can go too far. When it does, life turns into death. In George Eliot’s words, ‘There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men’ (Middlemarch).

In a word, Bourne is touched by love. And love is a force that will not be corralled into the neat paddock of ideology, whatever that ideology’s declared good intentions. This, I think, is what Caputo means when he calls deconstruction ‘love,’ and what Derrida means when he refers to it as ‘a response to a call’ (Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage, Richard Kearney , p118). Any idea can be deconstructed because ideas are essentially fictions to begin with, makeshift mental shacks erected to help us navigate the chaos of life. Love, by contrast, is not a construction (and if it is, it’s fake, self-delusion born of a deep need). Love is not a thing at all, but rather something that happens; a force with the power to disrupt all social, cultural and political structures, regardless of how reverently held they may be.

What happens to Bourne finds an echo in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ Like Bourne, the mariner is lost in darkness through an act of murder (the killing of an albatross), and, like Bourne, he too is blessed with an epiphany of sorts – in this case, the sighting of sea-snakes. He is struck by the beauty of the creatures, a beauty beyond the ability of any language to describe (‘No tongue / Their beauty might declare’), and thus beyond capture by any structure:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware

II. 282-87

‘Unaware’ is a key word in that quatrain (as Coleridge indicates by repeating it). It happens beneath the level of conscious thought, beneath the level at which mental structures are erected, and are thus immune from being deconstructed. Jason Bourne’s kind saint, the power of love itself, has stopped him in his tracks for just long enough to disrupt his planned assassination. The putative victim wakes up and takes a few shots at Bourne, who just manages to escape overboard, thus setting in motion a series of events that will in time become the flower of which this initial insight was the seed.

Over the course of three films, Bourne then spends his time getting to the root of the evil that has been done to him, and doing his best to put it right. The purity he fights is bluntly expressed by a CIA boss in a scene with Pamela Landy, a CIA controller trying to do the right thing by Bourne, in the third film. The boss has ordered that Nicki, the girl sent to talk to Bourne, be killed along with Bourne because he suspects she has gone over to the fugitive’s side. When Landy objects to this, saying, ‘If we start down this path, where does it end?,’ he snarls in reply, ‘It ends when we’ve won.’ The battle-cry of purists and fundamentalists the world over: It ends when we’ve won. When we’ve silenced or killed off all the opposition to our one pure way of life.

Pascal put the idea like this: ‘Man is neither angel nor beast, and unhappily whoever wants to act the angel, acts the beast’ (Pensées, p358). Deconstruction, seen in this light, is a way of guarding against the angel turning into the beast.

The ideal deconstructionist might be the character of Pamela Landy in the third Bourne film. She wants to take the risk of talking to Bourne though, for all she knows, he may well be the renegade assassin her superiors say he is. She certainly has no wish to destroy the institution of which she is a member, but she knows instinctively that it cannot function as a healthy body by simply following blind procedures without regard to other, and possibly dangerous, possibilities; without, in other words, being open to ‘the other.’ In a similar fashion, Derrida has no wish to destroy the philosophies which he deconstructs, but rather to let the fresh air of new thinking into them, in order to keep them alive. Deconstruction is a modern secular way of keeping the fresh air of the infinite blowing through the finite world.

Huckleberry Finn

If deconstruction is spontaneity in action, the law of the heart triumphing over the law of the land, or over the law of whatever social mores or cultural rigidities are currently in vogue, then Huckleberry Finn provides a perfect example.

Huck’s essential being is itself a form of deconstruction of all the social and cultural structures that he’s surrounded and mostly oppressed by, all flying under the banner of ‘sivilisation,’ but the idea is most clearly and sharply focused in the story of the journey down the Mississippi with the escaped slave, Jim. Huck is no intellectual, he fully accepts his society’s view of slaves, which is that they are owned in their entire inferior being by the whites, who have been given this duty of care by God. Slavery, far from being an evil, is God’s law. Huck accepts this. But on the journey down the river, he comes to know and like Jim as an individual human being, one much like himself, and he is tortured by the thought of giving him up to the authorities, something his rational mind tells himis the correct thing to do. The law of the heart (or wherever the seat is of these fleeting, spontaneous impulses) comes up against the law of the head.

This is deconstruction in action. In allowing his heart the victory in this particular battle, Huck is deconstructing a fundamental fixed point of his society’s belief system. This is not at all the same thing as Huck thinking the problem out intellectually and deciding that slavery per se was a bad thing. This would simply be pitting one intellectual position against another. It’s important that Huck ends his inner conflict, not by suddenly becoming enlightened about the evils of slavery, but by obeying the deeper truth he hears within himself, the one that can’t be pinned down in any statute book. Derrida posits justice as the deconstructive element in law. There may be no justice in the world, but the law – fixed statutes and penalties – is fired and inspired by the idea of justice (but too often perverted by the actions of Tournier’s Law: ‘Purity is the malign inversion of innocence’). ‘You’ll get justice in the next world,’ goes the opening line of William Gaddis’s novel, A Frolic of His Own, ‘in this world we have the law.’ With Huck and Jim, justice is the event that has disrupted the rigidity of the law, that event being the un-deconstructible human connection between them. That is, love.

‘no help for that’

At heart, the human being is a lack (we’re all waiting for Godot), and deconstruction is the intuitive awareness of that lack, and of the necessity of keeping a weather eye on the dangers of anything that promises to be ‘the answer.’ I doubt if Charles Bukowski has ever been accused of being a deconstructionist, but he did write this:

no help for that

there is a place in the heart that

will never be filled

a space

and even during the

best moments


the greatest


we will know it

we will know it

more than


there is a place in the heart that

will never be filled


we will wait



in that


What is this but Derrida’s longing for the impossible?

Three Colours: Blue

Julie, the protagonist of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue loses her husband and child in a car accident and decides, as a way of alleviating the pain of this loss, to effectively shut down her life. She cuts all ties with friends and family, moves to a flat in the city and establishes a simple routine centred on the local cafe and the swimming baths. She puts her life on auto-pilot; safe, secure, swaddled in pain-free tedium. On a personal level, she echoes those fundamentalist religions and political systems that operate by strict rules and regulations and abhor all innovations and spontaneity.

But life will not have it. Slowly but surely she is drawn back into the flow. As the wife of a famous composer (and a composer herself) music had been her great love, and now, despite efforts to rid herself of this aspect of her past, it keeps stopping her in her tracks, pieces of a musical score suddenly banishing the mundanity around her. And people, too, will not be ignored. Her essential goodness and humanity (which will be made explicit towards the end of the film) is drawn out when she responds to the sounds of a man being attacked by thugs in the street outside her apartment. She doesn’t respond with enough vigour to do the poor man any good, but it’s a start – a start that creates a connection with a young woman living on the floor beneath. Then she refuses to sign a petition got up by the other residents who want to kick out this young woman whom they regard as a whore. As a result, the young woman becomes her friend. Bit by bit, she is drawn back into life – to the point where, finding out that her husband had been having an affair with a young lawyer, she goes to see the woman and, on hearing that she is pregnant, gives her a place to live – her old house (a beautiful chateau) which she had previously put up for sale. And she completes her husband’s final unfinished symphony in tandem with her husband’s assistant, with whom she embarks on an affair.

It’s a classic story arc in both literature and film: the stony heart, cut off from life through pain of one kind or another, gradually melted through contact with people, in effect, through the power of love. So what can it possibly have to do with deconstruction, or any of deconstruction’s extended family? As mentioned earlier, deconstruction is love, a response to a call. Love is the ultimate deconstructing power because it, alone, is not, and never can be, a construction of any kind. Rather, it is what infuses all other structures – families, institutions, philosophies – with their life. Julie has built herself a life which she believes will free her from pain, and love has deconstructed it, prevented it from degenerating into an empty shell. As if to underscore the point, the film ends with the famous words of St. Paul, set to the music she has composed: ‘If I have not love, I am become as hollow brass.’ An empty shell. Whether it’s a personal life, a religious organisation, a political system or a philosophy, without love at the heart of it, it’s worthless. St. Paul’s famous words, seen in this light, may well be western literature’s earliest deconstruction manifesto.

Pride and Prejudice

Possibly the most famous scene in Pride and Prejudice is the one where Darcy, fascinated despite himself by Elizabeth, dares to open a crack in his well-structured stuffy world in order to make her a proposal – and Elizabeth responds by blowing the walls down. She deconstructs his world in the best Derridean fashion: that is, she shatters his false, desiccated notions of propriety and decorum while leaving the solid structure supporting those notions intact (everything will be as it is yet wholly different). After all, she does want to live there.

Works Cited

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[1] Some testimonies from artists on the subject: The French poet and novelist Michel Houellebecq has said: ‘It is as though – and I know this sounds irrational – it is as though the poem already existed, has existed for all eternity, and that all you have done is discover it’ (Public Enemies 247). John Banville had this to say on the creation of his novel, Kepler:

Always I begin with the shape. But let me make a distinction, a very important one. The form of say, Kepler, is in itself wholly synthetic, by which I mean that it is imposed from outside, yet by synthetic I do not mean false, or insincere. It is, this formal imposition, the means by which I attempt to show forth, in the Heideggerian sense, the intuitive shape of the particular work of art which is Kepler, and which was there, inviolate, before and after the book was written. (Imhof 6)

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has said this on the subject of song writing (I’m paraphrasing from a barely-remembered interview): ‘You don’t write songs, you sort of pluck them out of the ether. They’re there, all the time. You just have to find them.’ And speaking of such poets as Keats, Wordsworth and Eliot, Northrop Frye has claimed: ‘They’ve all said the same thing. The poet does not think of himself as making his poems. He thinks of himself as a place where poems happen. (Frye 408)