Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind started life as the catalogue for an exhibition curated at the Louvre, and it was certainly provocative for the philosopher to take blindness as his theme at this institution so devoted to the powers of sight. Indeed, Derrida includes within the text the moment in which he first came up with the idea for the show. It is of course a scene of writing, but also of blindness and (potential) accident as, driving home from his first meeting at the museum:
the theme of the exhibition hits me. All of a sudden, in an instant. I scribble at the wheel a provisional title for my own use, to organize my notes: L’ouvre où ne pas voir. (32-33)
This title translates as “The Open Where Not to See” but also plays on the homophony between “L’ouvre” and “Louvre”: the Louvre as a place where one does not see. The most renowned temple to the visual arts as a place of blindness.
So Derrida wants to draw a (self-)portrait of Western representation in which blindness is a central concern or even enabling possibility. All drawing, indeed, he claims to be the representation of the blind by the blind. Among other things, this means that the draftsman is inevitably either looking at the object of representation (and so cannot see what he is drawing on the page) or is looking at the representation as he makes it come into being (and so cannot see what he is drawing in life). Drawing is therefore necessarily mediated by memory: no portrait is ever a picture of the thing itself, but rather of something that has always already been worked on by the mind and experience.
But this mediation is inevitably problematic, imperfect, and so in some sense ruined or ruining. As Derrida the driver scribbles blindly while he keeps his eyes on the road, or looks down at his pad and so is distracted from his driving, in either case he risks ruin or accident: a meaningless scrawl on the one hand, that fails to record the idea that had suddenly struck him; or the possibility of suddenly striking a pedestrian or another vehicle while trying to make sense of the exhibition to come.
Yet the ruin is not simply accident or potential disaster; it is fundamental to the project of (self-)representation: “In the beginning there is ruin. Ruin is what happens to the image from the moment of the first gaze” (68).
Hence a necessary hesitation. At best, perhaps, at such times the multitasking driver, blind either to the road or to the representation of his or her own thoughts, may start to veer from side to side, or miss his or her turning. And blindness is after all associated with wandering or getting lost, just as wandering can in turn induce blindness both literal (snow blindness, for instance) and figurative.
And so it is also that Derrida’s own text rather wanders through the historical tradition as he makes his way through the Louvre’s immense archive. In what is imagined to be some kind of dialogue (with whom, it is never specified; perhaps some other, rather more skeptical self), Derrida roams between readings of specific works to general theories of drawing to speculations on the imagination of blindness from Homer or the Cyclops to St. Paul on the road to Damascus and on to the nineteenth-century realist self-portrait (but strangely, not very much further).
This is not an argument as such, more a tour d’horizon in which the horizon is very much closer than we may like, and is indeed more often an interior horizon than an exterior one: as Derrida notes, we are repeatedly reminded that physical, external sight must be extinguished for spiritual, internal vision to flourish. Along the way in this intimate journey there is plenty of insight, if much that is also naturally blurred and hard to make out.
Finally, then, Derrida ends not so much with a bang but a whimper, with the suggestion that eyes are less for seeing than for weeping, that “tears and not sight are the essence of the eye” (126), and that it is when our vision is clouded with tears, most ruined or ruinous, that we are closest to “the very truth of the eyes” (127).