Derrida at Montaigne: A Stay of Execution

Katie Chenoweth, an assistant professor at Princeton University who specializes in Renaissance French studies, spoke on Derrida’s use of Montaigne’s works at a lecture sponsored by the BYU Humanities Center and the departments of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature; French and Italian; and Spanish and Portuguese.
Derrida Lecture PosterPROVO, Utah (Oct. 2, 2014)—French philosopher Jacques Derrida never met writer Montaigne, but despite living in different time periods Derrida related heavily to his work. At a lecture sponsored primarily by the Humanities Center at Brigham Young University, Katie Chenowith, an assistant professor at Princeton, explained Montaigne’s influence on Derrida’s work on the death penalty.

“The death penalty doesn’t appear in Montaigne’s work so it’s weird to find Montaigne appearing in Derrida’s essays on the death penalty,” said Chenoweth.

Chenoweth, who specializes in Renaissance French studies, has been researching the strange appearance of Montaigne in Derrida’s latest writings. “Maybe it’s just a chance,” but she argues that the appearance of Montaigne’s writings “suggests lifelines that can exist between different texts.”

She explained that in 2000, Derrida lectured in California on the death penalty. That year, California had the largest population on death row. “Derrida desired to reduce cruelty. Derrida brings to light that the motivation of lethal injection inventor has comparison to abolitionists.”

In his 2000 lecture, Derrida started with a quote from Montaigne: “To espouse at the cost of his and her life,” Chenoweth said. “Derrida is taking a page from Montaigne’s book by literally taking a page from Montaigne’s book.”

Montaigne’s original use of decircumcision – meaning a forced act of conversion ­– can be seen in Derrida’s works.

“Derrida reminds us that such a conversion mark’s Montaigne’s own family history on the side of his mother. She was forced to convert to Catholicism from Judaism…His own material lineage has been decircumsized,” Chenoweth said.

She continued, “Derrida is at Montaigne. He says this later, ‘Since I’m at Montaigne, I’m going to stay awhile.’

“’To stay in Montaigne awhile’ means to stay in suspension. Before Kant, before Hugo…in a place where abolitionism is yet unthinkable. To stay in Montaigne is a skeptical prayer for the death penalty…that there would be a suspension of the practice of capital punishment,” said Chenoweth.

“Patience might be a struggle for survival,” concluded Chenoweth.

For more information the Humanities Center and its events, visit the website.

—Stephanie Bahr (B.A. English ’14)