Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2005 / 23 Teves 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Obituary of the Year | On less discerning newspapers, writing obituaries is considered a job either for raw beginners or veterans whose legs have given out. But the obits deserve more than that, considering how well read they are. If any stories are saved for posterity out of the mass of ephemera that is the daily paper, surely it's the obituaries of friends or family.

The good news is that this year the American Society of Newspaper Editors has decided to add an award for obituary writing to its usual ones for news and features and so on. It's about time this art form got its due.

For too long British papers have bested their American counterparts in the obituary department, perhaps because of the English sense of humor. Someone once commented that Americans think of death as a preventable disease. And when not in denial, we tend to adopt a stained-glass sonorousness that drains our tributes to the Loved One of all life. When it comes to the funereal, the Brits do it so much better.

American reporters can dash off an ornate obituary without embarrassment, unfortunately, and an occasional bitter or resentful one with admirable zest. But, also unfortunately, any humor in American obituaries may be reserved for satirical publications like "The Onion." ("Soviets Mourn Loss of Stalin/'Who Will Crush our Spirits and Destroy/Our Will to Live Now?' Ask/Distraught Citizens") Conclusion: What this country needs is livelier obituaries.

Consider: When the doyen of literary deconstructionism - Jacques Derrida - died this year, the good, much-too-gray New York Times ran an earnest tribute to the guru by one of his disciples. Deconstructionists tend to deride earnestness about anything except themselves. And when the Great Deconstructor himself was deconstructed, their mourning rites were practically Victorian.

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The quintessential French intellectual of his time, Jacques Derrida deserved to be played by Peter Sellers at full speed, complete with a meunkey in the reum. Instead, he was taken oh-so-seriously by American newspapers - and American universities.

M. Derrida belonged to a grand line of intellectual fakirs going back to Toynbee and continuing up to the present in the person of Noam Chomsky, another cult figure whose academic specialty might best be described as The Higher Mumbo-Jumbo.

Jacques Derrida was but one link in the great chain of fraudulent being that continues to thrive on Ivy League campuses to this day, like some prized variety of mold in New Orleans or Venice, where rot is an art form. Even now the next link in the chain is doubtless being formed at Yale or the Sorbonne, and suckers yet unborn will one day be persuaded that, even though they can't understand a word of his unreadable prose, Derrida was doubtless a genius because the bien-pensant say so.

It was left to the clear-eyed Times of London to hit upon the most effective way to summarize M. Derrida's lasting contribution to Western thought, or lack of same. It did so by running an editorial - excuse me, a leader - in an opaque jargon much like the master's. The headline: "Is Derrida dead? A conceptual foundation for the deconstruction of mortality."

Except for its sense of humor, the London Times' tribute to the dear departed could have come straight out of any postmodernist manifesto:

"Can there be any certainty in the death of Jacques Derrida? The obituarists' objective attempts to place his life in a finite context are, necessarily, subject to epistemic relativism, the idea that all such scientific theories are mere 'narrations' or social constructions. Surely, a postmodernist deconstruction of their import would inevitably question the foundational conceptual categories of prior science - among them, Derrida's own existence - which become problematised and relativised. This conceptual revolution has profound implications for the content of future postmodern and liberatory science of mortality. . . ."

Perfect. That endless and meaningless paragraph full of questions about a matter beyond question is enough to make some of us seek refuge in the simple, declarative prose of Dickens when it comes to a matter of life or death: "Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that."

And so is Derrida. 'Nuff said. The real question raised by the news of his passing was never whether he was dead, but whether he could be said to have truly lived.

Not since Marshall McLuhan, another great showman, has an academic icon written so much while managing to say so little. When it came to imitating the mud-clear Derrida style, The Times of London was dead-on. Its well-wrought obituary was so . . . true to life.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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