Two heads and two tails, locked in a twisting serpent circuit, ouroboric, without beginning or end: the double columns of Jacques Derrida’s Glas are perforated by a collage of grafted commentary and dictionary transcriptions in a carefully coded mélange of typefaces and founts. ‘An incongruous union or medley’, une ‘assemblage bizarre de différentes parties’, the book is a textual chimera.1 The sense is doubled, given that the text—replete with botanical explications—both discusses and performs kinds of grafting (‘s’agissant de greffe en tous cas et en tous sens [it has to do with grafting in any case and in every sense]’ [175; 124-125]).2 In biology, chimera denotes ‘an organism […] in which tissues of genetically different constitution co-exist as a result of grafting.’ Moreover, Derrida’s methodology is decidedly chimerical: a pataphysical enterprise of seemingly vain and idle play that sets out to construct a persuasive, logical, textually grounded, rigorously philosophical discourse from the chance assemblage of words whose spelling happens to involve the letter combination gl.

Not coincidentally, Glas names its totem animal explicitly, with an appositive ratio: ‘Aigle: chimère [Eagle: chimera]’ (80; 57). The equation might describe the fanciful macaronic slippage by which Derrida links the similar-sounding French pronunciations of Hegel and aigle, grafting the signifier from one language to another. Indeed, graft itself is subject to its own operation, accounting for the proximity of ‘greffes’ [grafts] and ‘griffes’ [talons, mentioned on the previous page], which both triangulate griffon: ‘oiseau de proie semblable à l’aigle [bird of prey which resembles an eagle]’, as well as a sort of lesser chimera: ‘animal fabuleux, moitié aigle et moitié lion [fabulous animal, half eagle and half lion].’ Such yokings and elisions, circling around words in their textual weave, enact and name: ‘le mot cerné c’est peut-être CHIMERE [the word encircled is perhaps CHIMERA]’) (268; 192).

Evoking the Hegelian Begriff [both ‘word’ and ‘idea’], griffon also denotes the spectre risked by Derrida’s literary ambition: a text badly written and difficult to read. Hence griffoner: ‘écrire mal, d’une manière très difficile à lire [to write badly, in a way that is very difficult to read].’ Needless to say, the proximity to graph is all to the point.

The opening syllable of chimère crisscrosses the structure, subject, and methodology of Glas: ‘X, chiasme presque parfait, plus que parfait, de deux textes mis en regard l’un d’autre [X, an almost perfect chiasm(us), more than perfect, of two texts, each one set facing the other]’ (61; 43). Indeed, the chiasmus—the iconic X or χῖ [Greek chi]—enacts itself in Glas, doubly emblematic. With an echoing reversal, X [CHI] both approximates and reverses across the h to IC, abbreviation of the Kantian ‘L’Impératif Catégorique’ (301; 216), which spells out as the homophonic ici [the ‘here’ of presence] which is caught in the metaphysical net of the ego: German Ich, also chiasmic of chi, and opening onto the ichthyic, with all the Christological associations at issue in Derrida’s discussion of Hegel.3 Furthermore, as Geoffrey Hartman explicates: ‘the IC that was made to denote a pure birth in Glas [via “Immaculée Conception”] morphs into a pictorial index of mortality, “lait de ma mort” (milk of my death).’4 The image repeats in a passage about ungraspable crossings: ‘pour le galalithe contre le lait naturel mais pour la nature contre le toc. Lait de deuil [for the galalith (milkstone) against natural milk, but for nature against the fake. Milk of mourning]’ (280-281; 201).

The incongruous figure of life and death, being and nothingness, explains Derrida’s homophonic pun on l’est [the is] and lait [milk], in parallel to his play on the German ‘Sein’ [‘Being’] and the French ‘sein’ [‘breast’]. The latter serves as synecdoche for mother, central to Derrida’s discussion of Jean Genet. The second syllable of chimère thus reinscribes itself from the chiasmus: mère [mother] (the same logic provides the ichthyic medium: mer [sea]). Moreover, that chiasmic process translates the Ich to the je, the ‘sein’ to the homonymic ‘seing’ [signature], as J. D.—the signatory initials of this book—resound with their phonemic echo as the signature Derridean phrase ‘[toujours] déjà.’

Unnatural, like the chimera (‘a monstrous unnatural body’), the ‘toc’ [sham] in the passage above stands in parallel to ‘mourning’ and is synonymous with ‘ersatz’, a word repeated throughout Glas, taunting the sentences or propositions [German Satz] of Hegelian philosophy.5 But the word also sounds the initial syllable of tocsin, another privileged term in the lexicon of Glas, where it signals the sounding of the knell [glas, in French], and which incredibly shares its etymology with seing [13; 10]. Derrida goes out of his way to link ‘tocsin’ to ‘milk’ (74-77; 53-55), and the syllabic echo recurs as well in the toxin of Derrida’s discussions of ‘lait toxique [toxic milk]’ (74; 53), as well as various poisons and the logic of the pharmakon: both remedy and bane. Glas explicitly figures the universal antidote [‘contrepoison universel’ (268; 192)] to that toxin—the unicorn—as a chimera (80; 57).

Almost a shibboleth, the pronunciation of chimera splits the tongue like its own serpent tail. The Greek demands a harder initial consonant, but both English and French veer from the voiceless velar fricative [ch] to the unvoiced palato-alveolar fricative [sh]; the pronunciation is so bifurcated that ‘the two spoken forms are practically distinct words.’6 English, furthermore, suggests a third sounding, as in chime (Derrida quotes ‘the chiming of the bells’, from Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Bells’). Chime era—the time of sounding: the procession measured by the funeral knell, Glas itself.

Like a series of cadavres exquises, the terms in Derrida’s tome (tomb)—a sort of laboratory for generating chimeras—are grafted, spliced, and regrafted in turn: from language to language, dictionary to narrative, text to text. Glas is difficult to read, in part, because its lexical concatenations are slippery and restless and endlessly moving even without motivation; the book allegorises, or narrativises, the chain of the signifier itself. Fearful and revealing, it shows itself to be a beautiful monster.


Craig Dworkin is the author, most recently, of Dictionary Poetics: Toward a Radical Lexicography (Fordham University Press) and Radium of the Word: A Poetics of Materiality (University of Chicago Press), both 2020. He teaches literary history and theory at the University of Utah and serves as Senior Founding Editor of the Eclipse Archive.


1 For a reading of the visual prosody of Glas, see Anne Royston: Material Noise: Reading Theory as Artist’s Book (Cambridge: MIT University Press, 2019). Unless indicated otherwise, definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) and Le dictionnaire de la langue française, ed. Émile Littré (Monte-Carlo: Editions du Cap, 1971, 4 volumes).
2 Citations to Glas indicate the editions from Denoël (Paris, 1981, 2 volumes) and University of Nebraska Press, trans. John P. Leavey and Richard Rand (Lincoln, 1990).
3 See Geoffrey Hartman: ‘Homage to Glas’, Critical Inquiry 33: 2 (Winter, 2007): 350-1.
4 Ibidem.
5 CHIMBRIDS: Chimeras and Hybrids in Comparative European and International Research, ed. Jochen Taupitz and Marion Weschka (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009): 535.
6 O.E.D. sv. chimera.