In 1980, while my grandfather served the second year of his indefinite sentence in a cell shared with fifty other men and their open latrine, Jacques Derrida, philosophy’s enfant terrible, already the author of Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena and Of Grammatology, was preparing his doctoral defence – a defence that would, even more than ordinarily, be an apologia for an entire philosophical project. And so, in characteristic fashion, positioning himself in opposition to two luminaries of Western philosophy, Derrida conjured the ghost of a lesser-known, neglected thinker:
Not – especially not – in the versions proposed by Sartre or by Merleau-Ponty which were then dominant, but rather in opposition to them, or without them, in particular in those areas which a certain type of French phenomenology appeared at times to avoid, whether in history, in science, in the historicity of science, the history of ideal objects and of truth, and hence in politics as well, and even in ethics. I should like to recall here, as one indication among others, a book which is no longer discussed today, a book whose merits can be very diversely evaluated, but which for a certain number of us pointed to a task, a difficulty and no doubt an impasse. This is Trần Đức Thảo’s Phénoménologie et matérialisme dialectique.
I like to think that Derrida came across this obscure little book in the same way that I did, in a Parisian flea market while looking for something else – just passing the time, really, on one of my morning adventures into Paris proper while I waited for the afternoon visiting hours to begin at the public hospital on the suburban fringes where my grandfather, having fled Vietnam to seek asylum in the bosom of Empire, was slowly dying – browsing half-heartedly through boxes of knick-knacks and Serge Gainsbourg records and Mai ’68 editions of Le Canard enchaîné, my eyes were snagged by the telltale diacritics and the familiarity of the triple-barrel name: Trần Đức Thảo.
Thảo, I’d find out later, had followed a well-worn path from an Indochinese lycée to undergraduate studies in the capital – a path my grandfather might have taken if the Second World War hadn’t broken out. In Paris, Thảo studied under Merleau-Ponty and gained some notice as an emerging philosopher. He was interested in the material conditions of consciousness, and tried to synthesise Husserlian phenomenology and Hegelian Marxism. In 1951, hoping to contribute to the successful Marxist revolution that had swept away the French in 1946, he returned to Vietnam – and to philosophical obscurity, but for this starring role in Derrida’s self-mythology. And self-mythologising it most certainly was: Derrida, for all that he liked to align himself with the neglected colonial philosopher, shared much more in common with the canon. The plucky Vietnamese philosopher was only ever a token gesture, an illustration of deconstruction in practice.
The poets are gathered under the pink canopy of New Year peach blossoms. Really, the blossoms are already fading, and the brightest petals left belong to the late bloomers, the poet’s flowers. But it’s still a picturesque scene. Later there will be fireworks, and li si, red envelopes filled with small amounts of money and given as gifts, but for now all eyes are on the callow youth who will soon become the great revolutionary poet Tố Hữu. His poem is already a well-known one, an ode to revolutionary fervour, that emotion which causes the poet to link his soul to ‘all those suffering souls’. The opening stanza evokes a summer garden to express his joyful zeal:
Since then, inside me, summer has blazed up – The sun of truth has shone through my heart, My soul’s a garden full of leaves and flowers, Rich in all scents, alive with all birds’ songs.
I imagine my grandfather in the enthusiastic audience, one of many earnest young men who will leave their families behind to go join Ho Chi Minh’s guerrilla forces in the mountains. This is the moment my grandfather comes into sharpest focus. Later on, his yearning will be diluted, muddled up in the impossible politics of Indochina, but on this day in 1942, under the late-blooming peach blossoms, his desire – for justice, for a new, better world – is something I can understand. The scene recalls bell hooks’s words about yearning, that ‘common psychological state shared by many of us … that wells in the hearts and minds of those whom such narratives have silenced is the longing for critical voice.’
That Tố Hữu would go on to become chief censor for the new regime, playing a part in the political destruction of the insufficiently orthodox Trần Đức Thảo; that the Party would live long enough to betray its own revolution; that my grandfather would never make it to the mountains to join Ho, falling in love not with the suffering people but with a Catholic girl from a wealthy Hanoian family – all of that is still to come. For now, isn’t it enough that he is here, where there is poetry and hope and solidarity, beneath the not-yet-faded blossoms?