"Il y a là cendre"

"There are cinders"

This simple phrase- a problem.
Cinders is the English title of Jacques Derrida's book Feu la Cendre, which is precisely an examination of the above phrase.
Though Derrida is known for his meticulous attention to the most minute details of a text, it is rare to read a 30-40 page essay (the term essay is probably mis-applied here...) that deals strictly with the problems posed by a single, rather innocuous sentence.

"Il y a là cendre"

"There are cinders"

Readers unfamiliar with Derrida’s work might put off such an extensive 'examination' as simply the reduction to absurdity of 'close-reading'. I think (though I am by no means 'familiar' with Derrida’s work) that to do so would be to miss the very point that Derrida is trying to make.

Derrida’s work is generally concerned with problems of language. What I find interesting (and exciting) about Cinders in particular, is that it manages to explore most of these problems in an examination that begins, and runs its entire course, through the examination of the simple phrase:

"Il y a là cendre"

there are cinders

The First Opposition (primary, flawed): Writing and Speech

or: what first opposition?


-- All the more because this word, , “there,” you would no longer let it be heard. Listening only to it, with eyes close, I liked putting my mind at rest by whispering “the cinder,” confusing this , “there,” yes, with la, the singular feminine definite article. It was necessary to decipher without losing equilibrium between the eye and the ear; I am not sure that I was ever able to achieve it.
(Cinders 31)

What is Derrida getting at in this passage?

Personally, I think that there is a valid, and important philosophical point to be extracted from this seemingly well written piece of literary nonsense.

One of the problems posed by the phrase "Il y a là cendre" is found in the fact that, in French, the words “là” (there) and “la” (the feminine definite article; i.e. the feminine ‘the’) are indistinguishable to the ear, but they are written differently. This sort of difference is exactly what Derrida was pointing to as problematic in his earlier works (see my write up on Of Grammatology for instance).

A common philosophical view (indeed, the common view in general) of writing is that it is a system of visual signs made for representing a verbal system of signs. Thus, writing is seen as subservient to the spoken word. This is a view that Derrida calls phonocentrism (obviously for its centering itself around phonic signs rather than graphic). This view of writing can be seen in the philosophical tradition from Plato and Aristotle, up to more recent French philosophy/linguistics by people like Condillac and Ferdinand de Saussure. It is precisely this view of writing that Derrida attempts to undermine in his works.

In his earlier works, Derrida opposes this view with what he calls graphocentrism (centred around graphic (visual) signs, rather than auditory ones). This view takes the model for language and sign systems in general as writing, rather than speaking. This is most extensively covered in Of Grammatology, as I mentioned above.

In Cinders, however, I think that Derrida is denying both phonocentrism and graphocentrism. He doesn’t do this terribly directly (directness is not generally a quality that Derrida’s books have a lot of), but with puns, metaphors and associations.

In ‘deciphering’ the sentence,

"Il y a là cendre"

there are cinders

Derrida asks:


--Who is Cinder? Where is she? Where did she run off to at this hour? If the homophony withholds the singular name within the common noun, it was surely “there,” ; someone had vanished but something preserved her trace and at the same time lost it, the cinder. There the cinder is…(Cinders, 33,35)

Here we can see that Derrida is playing around with the notion of homophony, and how it (an ostensibly cosmetic feature of language) relates to meaning. Our verbal interpretation of the phrase:

"Il y a là cendre"

there are cinders

will be highly different from our visual interpretation of it. For instance: if we simply read the phrase

"Il y a là cendre"

there are cinders

There would be no question that what we meant was

there are cinders

Whereas, if someone said the phrase to us, there is the possibility for this confusion, which Derrida discusses, and plays with, over and over again:

Here are just a few of these 'confusions' (different meanings/interpretations of the phrase):

"Cinders there are." (Cinders 33)

"There is doubtless no real secret at the bottom of this sentence, no determined proper name. Once he confided to me, but I still do not believe that the first letter of almost every word, I.L.Y.A.L.C. il y a là cendre, was the first letter of another word, all of it expressing, but in a foreign language, an entirely different statement, which would have played the role of a coded proper name, in truth his ciphered signature." (Cinders 51)

"The sentence avows only the ongoing incineration, of which it remains the almost silent monument: this can be "there," -- (Cinders 37)

Thus, in Cinders we can see that the relationship(s) between the written form of a word and its verbal "counterpart" (Derrida questions that we can simply pair up written and spoken words in such a facile union) are far more subtle than they appear. Other than these 'misunderstandings' of meaning (through (mis)reading or 'poor' hearing, Derrida also blurs the traditional distinction between the literal and the metaphorical.

As you may have noticed from the above quotations, Derrida's writing style (which comes into its own after early in the 70's) is particularly conventional, even for the French. His work oscillates between the literary and the philosophical, the fanciful and the factual: importantly, this oscillation of style also contributes to the reader's understanding of the irreduceable multiplicity of meaning. Such a seemingly simple phrase as "Cinders there are" can be intrepreted so widely that pretending that it has some sort of 'actual' meaning (based on the intent of the speaker, or author) seems ridiculous (After reading Cinders, that is).

So, as it is, I think Cinders is both an interesting exercise in style, and also a serious meditation on the 'nature' of linguistic meaning.

The reference for Cinders:

Jacques Derrida, Cinders, translated/edited by Ned Lukacher (University of Nebraska Press, 1991, Lincoln).