The Hedgehog

A warning ought to be posted at the head of this article: "The following reflections on the works by Jacques Derrida do not in any way represent the real opinions of Derrida."  Or, to restate the warning, the following reflections do represent the real opinions of Derrida, and that is precisely the problem.  A representation is not a reality; a copy is not the original.  The gap between representation and reality cannot be crossed by language, and Derrida’s work "Che cos’è la poesie?" ["What is Poetry?"] explores the consequences of this for poetry and translation.

In "Che cos’è la poesie?" Derrida introduces a series of linguistic antitheses, the first of which concerns poetry and prose.  Derrida’s chief task is to define poetry, but he indicates that this is impossible because definition is a philosophical exercise rather than a poetic one.  If one tries to force poetry to render an account of itself, it enters a prosaic mode and destroys its essence as poetry.  Poetry therefore cannot communicate what it is to anyone.  The metaphor Derrida uses is that of a hedgehog trying to cross a road.  The hedgehog starts out toward the other side (say, the "prosaic side"), but half-way there it sees danger and curls up to protect itself.  The curling up is an inward action of turning back on itself, metaphorizing the inability of poetry to define itself without referring back to itself.   The irony of the curling up is that, if the danger is an oncoming car (say, Derrida’s deconstruction-mobile), the hedgehog will be destroyed precisely because it does curl up.  By referring only to itself, poetry is unable to access the "other side of the road" and therefore cannot be an adequate means of communication.

The curling up of the hedgehog graphically metaphorizes not only the antithesis between poetry and prose, but also the antithesis between an original work and its translation.  A trans-lation is indeed a movement across the road, as the translator attempts to state in one language what a different one expresses.  In this attempt, however, the problem of language itself becomes apparent.  A language is a system of signs or representations that refer to themselves.   If a language refers merely to itself, however, it cannot refer to anything external, and therefore each language is its own sealed-off representational system.  The consequence of this is that the translator is never quite able to reach the "farther side" of the translation.  So much meaning is lost in "crossing the road" that the "real" work cannot be communicated; it turns in on itself, refers to itself, and is left in danger of the on-coming deconstruction-mobile.  This danger of deconstruction is therefore the primary dilemma of Derrida’s essay "Che cos’è la poesie?".  Language attempts to achieve reality and cannot do so; yet, insofar as it fails to do so, it deconstructs itself and is destroyed.

The inadequacy of language, translation, or poetry to bridge the gap between representation and reality is the chief theme of Derrida’s "Che cos’è la poesie?".  With its hedgehogs, automobiles, and Italian puns, the essay provides ample illustrations of Derrida’s linguistic wit.  It is therefore most lamentable that, if Derrida is correct, no one knows what he really wrote.  His brilliant and witty language is merely an inadequate representation of his real thoughts, and "Che cos’è la poesie?" ultimately must deconstruct itself.


  1. Metaphysical Realist said,

    May 23, 2006 at 5:43 pm

    The last line of the second paragraph poetry “cannot communicate”~Do you mean poetry cannot communicate outside of itself in any way, or poetry cannot define itself to one who is outside of it?


  2. neoplatonist said,

    May 23, 2006 at 8:58 pm

    I think Derrida means both. Nothing communicates outside itself–it’s all circular. And poetry can’t define itself because that would be “breaking the circle” and crossing over from poetry to prose.

  3. Metaphysical Realist said,

    May 24, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    Couldn’t poetry define itself within itself? It would remain within the circle. The problem would be the reader who stands outside of it, trying to get into the circle. The hedgehog doesn’t explode when he curls up; he simply doesn’t make it to the other side.

  4. neoplatonist said,

    May 25, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    If "definition" means stipulating a genus and a species in a non-metaphorical way, "definition" itself is inherently non-poetic. Derrida would say that poetry's attempt to define itself would be equivalent to constructing a non-metaphorical metaphor.

    Nice point about the hedgehog not exploding. 🙂 Since Derrida uses so many metaphors to talk about what poetry can't do, and since there's nothing prosaic to limit the metaphors, it's hard to see where they break down.

  5. Metaphysical Realist said,

    May 31, 2006 at 5:59 am

    I’m not convinced. If poetry in essence is metaphorical, then it must define itself metaphorically. Perhaps the question is this: is it possible “to define” metaphorically, as opposed to approximate description? If the answer is “no”, then I agree with Derrida. If one takes poetry and delineates it to prose, the poetry, “by definition” has been destroyed.

    This raises an a priori question: why do we want to define poetry? What Metaphysical question are we trying to answer?

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