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The family who moved in next door has family connections to a native plant nursery – just the thing to feed my addiction.

I planted what he sourced for me today – Joe-Pye Weed, Slender Blazing Star, Soiky Blazing Star, Yellow Canada Lily, Starry False Solomon’s Seal, Butterfly Milkweed, Boneset, Mountain Mint, Pale Echinacea, and Nannyberry.

Just thought you might like to know.

As readers of Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality, we are from the very first confronted by the question of how to receive the text.  How is such a text to be read?  Should we first read Anne Dufourmantelle’s essay, which she labels an “Invitation”, and which appears on the left-hand pages, always visually preceding Derrida’s own words on the right-hand pages?  Or should we first read Derrida’s lectures, which were delivered first and to which Dufourmantelle’s “Invitation” responds?  Is it possible that we might read the two together, one alternating with the other, page alternating page?  How, in other words, are we to receive this singular text, how do we make a reception for it, keeping in mind the connotations of hospitality that these words ‘receive’ and ‘reception’ bear with them?  To read Of Hospitality, therefore, is to involve ourselves in the question of reading as hospitality, in the question of how to receive what Dufourmantelle and Derrida have written.

When I take up a text to read it, any text, I extend an invitation through it, not an invitation to the author in person, of course, except perhaps in certain exceptional senses, but an invitation to what the author has written, or, in the case of Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality, to what has been transcribed on behalf of the author, but in any case, to the words beneath which the author’s name has been signed.  The act of reading opens the reader to this text like the act of invitation opens the home to the guest.  It makes the reader available, attentive, receptive, concerned with the text, puts the reader in the position of the host.  To read is to host what arrives through the text as a guest.

In this sense, Of Hospitality imposes gravely on my hospitality as a reader, not only in the ways that every guest always imposes on any hospitality, but because my hospitality, my invitation, which was extended to Derrida, to whom my invitation has been extended so many times in the past, becomes also, though I did not bargain for it, did not account for it, an invitation to Dufourmantelle as well, whom I do not know, to whom I would never have made my invitation had she not come in Derrida’s company, had she not arrived with him as his guest.  I invited one, but this other came to claim my hospitality also, this one who now becomes my guest through my guest, whom I am forced to receive as the guest of my guest.

This arriving-with makes all the difference.  Dufourmantelle does not arrive before Derrida, does not arrive in a preface or an introduction or a note on the text.  Nor does she arrive after him, as a postscript or an envoi or an epilogue.  She arrives at almost precisely the same moment, she on one page, he on the other, her text interpolated with his.  For this reason she is not merely a stranger who happens to arrive before or after Derrida, a stranger who might still require my hospitality, who might even demand it, but who could in either case be extended hospitality in her own right.  She is instead a stranger who arrives with Derrida, with an already invited guest, and her arrival presumes on an invitation that was never hers, assumes a hospitality, not in her own name or her own right, but in the name and the right of another.  She does not receive her invitation directly from the host, from me, but only indirectly, through the invitation that I extend to another.  She is not my guest.  She is the guest of my guest.  I am not her host.  I am the host of her host.

This relation between the guest-of-the-guest and the host-of-the-host arises because of the one who first received the invitation and then extended it to another, because of the guest who presumed to offer an invitation on behalf of the host, because of the guest who takes the place of the host.  This guest-host is invited, but also invites, stands between his host and his guest, offers his host to his guest and his guest to her host in a way that is necessarily an imposition on them both, even if this imposition is in some cases a welcome one.  The host is imposed on the guest just as much as the guest is imposed on the host.  My hospitality is imposed on Dufourmantelle, just as her arrival is imposed on me, and this is the case even when the guest-host extends the invitation unwillingly, even when he does not extend it at all, for even if Dufourmantelle has merely seized upon Derrida’s text and written herself into it without his assent, my invitation to hospitality, extended through Derrida, is as much an imposition on her as her arrival, enabled by this invitation, is an imposition on me.

It is not necessary, therefore, that either the guest-host or the guest-of-the-guest intend to impose on the host’s invitation or the host’s hospitality, because the imposition takes place quite apart from any intention, in the very structure of the relationship between the three parties.  The imposition is structural and insuperable, even when it is not unwelcome.  It arises essentially in the asymmetry between the invited guest and the uninvited guest, between the expected guest and the unexpected guest, between one kind of hospitality and another.  The host, extending an invitation, expects to receive the guest in a certain way and to be hospitable in a certain way, but discovers that there is expected of him another kind of reception and another kind of hospitality, an unexpected hospitality that arrives like a parasite on the expected.

This figure of the guest-of-the-guest is a risk that is implicit in every invitation and every hospitality.  Anyone whom I welcome across my threshold, whether a complete stranger or my spouse, whether my friend of my child, may extend an invitation to others to cross my threshold also, may extend an invitation that is not mine but that my hospitality is nevertheless obligated to recognize and to respect.  Any of those who enter my home, whatever their relationship to me, may be accompanied by another, may arrive with another, and this other must be received as a guest, or better, as the guest-of-my-guest.  This risk only grows as I extend an invitation to the hospitality of my home more often, since each such invitation bears in it the possibility that it will be extended to another, that my guest will arrive in the company of one or more that I did not expect.

The invitation that I extend, therefore, whether to my friend or to the words of Derrida, always implicitly invites the possibility of the guest-of-the-guest.  It does not merely accept this possibility, but in fact invites it in the same act of invitation that it extends to the guest, since the guest always implies the possibility of the guest-of-the-guest.  The first is not possible without the possibility of the second.  In the very act of opening the home to the guest, the host opens it also to the guest-of the-guest, not necessarily in person, not as such, but always in possibility, in potentiality.

This is one of the senses in which I read Derrida’s declaration that “the right to hospitality commits a household, a line of descent, a family,” because the hospitality that any member of the household might extend to another always commits the whole of the household to receive a guest that it did not in fact invite, and commits them to receive this guest as though she were invited, as though the household as a whole had together extended an invitation to her.  In this way, a member of the household is never able to extend an invitation to hospitality on his own behalf only, but is always necessarily making his invitation on behalf of the entire household, asking the household to host both his guest and himself as the host of his guest.  The household becomes the host-of-the-host, and the guest becomes the-guest-of-the-guest, in every case.

This figure of the guest-of-the-guest, this figure who is in this case embodied in the “Invitation” of Dufourmantelle, imposes on the hospitality of the host, on my hospitality, precisely because it blurs the boundary of the threshold, or, to be more precise, because it blurs where the guest-host stands in relation to this threshold.  The guest who extends my invitation to another and thereby acts as a host in my place bears an ambiguous relation to the threshold of my home, stands on both sides at once, straddles this boundary and therefore obscures it.  Likewise, the member of the household who extends an invitation on behalf of the household and thereby makes of himself a guest in his own home also straddles the threshold in this way.  Yet, as Derrida says, “any reflection on hospitality presupposes, among other things, the possibility of a rigorous distinction of threshold or frontiers: between the familial and the non-familial, between the foreign and the non-foreign, between the citizen and the non-citizen.”  The guest-host, standing with one foot in the home and one foot without, obscures these thresholds, these definitions, these categories, and therefore also prevents a clear reflection on the very idea of hospitality.

Much of what Derrida has to say in Of Hospitality is concerned with the relationship, both of conflict and collusion, that exists between the absolute law of hospitality and the conditional laws of hospitality.  He argues that “there is an antimony, an insoluble antimony between, on the one hand, the law of unlimited hospitality, and on the other hand, the laws, those rights and duties of hospitality that are always conditioned and conditional.”  He goes on to say that, between the law of absolute hospitality and the laws of conditional hospitality, “there is distinction, radical heterogeneity, but also indissociability. One calls forth, involves, or prescribes the other.”  Thus, the law and the laws of hospitality are both opposed absolutely and involved absolutely, which is one of the reasons that Derrida describes hospitality as the impossible and even as being defined by this impossibility.

This impossible relationship between the law and the laws of hospitality is, I think, critical to understanding the figures of the guest-of-the-guest and the guest-host as I have been describing them.  This is the case, not only in the most obvious sense, where the law of absolute hospitality requires me to receive both the invited and the uninvited guest “before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification,” while the laws of conditional hospitality require me to receive them precisely as they are determined, anticipated, and identified.  It is also the case in the sense that the laws of conditional hospitality by which I receive one guest are being used to invoke the law of unconditional hospitality and to impose on me, as the host, a further conditional hospitality that I would not otherwise have extended.  In other words, the guest-host is making use of the impossible relationship between conditional and unconditional hospitality in order to manipulate the rights and duties of my hospitality against my will and my choice.  If I refuse to receive the guest-of-the-guest according to the expectations of the guest-host, then I am seen as having transgressed against the law of absolute hospitality.

Yet, as I have already argued, the risk of this guest-of-the guest, the risk of this manipulation of my hospitality through an appeal to an unconditional hospitality, is inherent in every invitation and in every hospitality.  In every invitation to hospitality that I extend, I also invite an imposition on my hospitality, a manipulation of my hospitality, a turning of my hospitality against my will.  The hospitality that I offer is always potentially the means to impose on me a hospitality that I did not offer.  Hospitality always, at least in potentiality, imposes on hospitality.

The implications of this imposition of one conditional hospitality on another are not insignificant, because they are deeply ethical in nature. As Derrida says, “The problem of hospitality is coextensive with the ethical problem.  It is always about answering for a dwelling place, for one’s identity, one’s space, one’s limits, for the ethos as abode, habitation, house, hearth, family, home.”  The ethics of the home are at stake here, are bound up in the impossibility of hospitality, in the imposition of hospitality on hospitality.  If it is the case that the guest-host imposes a hospitality on the host, then the hospitality of the home, the ethics of the home, are always in fact, at least in part, determined from beyond the home, apart from the home, by the one who enters the home and extends its hospitality beyond what it has in fact offered.  The hospitality and the ethics of the home are never what they offer themselves to be, but are always imposed upon, distorted, made other than they would choose to be.

This is the situation in which Of Hospitality places me, in which it places all of its readers.  Derrida’s text, to which we offer a conditional hospitality, appeals to the law of unconditional hospitality on behalf of Dufourmantelle’s text, imposes on us a hospitality that we would not otherwise offer.  It imposes a hospitality, already also an ethics, for which the dwelling place and the family and the home and the reader as self will be made to answer.

I have been away for a while, first on Manitoulin with some friends and then at camp, and I have returned home with a whole list of things that I need to write about but will probably not find the time to write about very soon, especially considering the new semester that is lurking only a few days away.  I would like to write something about what it means to go away together, in togetherness, as family and as friends, something about how increased wealth produces increased isolation, something about John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues, something on the idea of the call in Heidegger, something on the relationship between ideals of individuality and the experience of depression, and this is still a very partial list.

I was full of these and other things  as I drove into the driveway on Saturday, full of the need to do something about them, but coming home disrupted them with its welcome, disrupted them with the pleasantness of the home and neighbourhood.  There were tomatoes, hundred of tomatoes, ripening on the vines, the first ripe tomatoes I have ever managed to grow from seedThere were apples, a very few apples, our first ever crop of apples, ready to be pickedThere were sunflowers, the sunflowers that my eldest son had purchased with his own allowance and planted with his own hands and watered relentlessly, and they were blooming.  There were the friends who dropped by for pancakes on Saturday night, and the friends who came by for pasta on Sunday night.  There was, in short, a fullness of those things that make the home and the garden and the neighbourhood what they should be.

You will not blame me for choosing them over writing the poor things that I might have written.

I finished Ivan Illich’s In The Vineyard Of The Text some time last fall, and I wrote about it once at that time, warning that I might write several times more because I had found so much in it that provoked me to reflection.  I never did get the chance to write what I had planned, but I was recently reminded of one of its ideas, so I will take the opportunity now to make good, at least in small part, on what I promised those several months ago.

At one point in the book, Illich describes a kind of utopian space where those who have learned to approach reading as a kind of spiritual discipline can gather in community.  “I dream,” he says, “that outside the educational system there might be something like houses of reading, where the few who discover their passion for a life centered on reading would find the necessary guidance, silence, and complicity of disciplined companionship needed for the long invitation into one or the other of several spiritualities or styles of celebrating the book.”  The kind of reader that he imagines for this place is “one who has made himself into an exile in order to concentrate his entire attention and desire on wisdom, which thus becomes the hoped-for home.”  There are thus two kinds of places being described here: the physical houses where readers might come together, and the hoped-for home of wisdom that such readers seek, and I think that these two places come to inform each other, creating between them an image of homes that are characterized by a love of wisdom and an image of wisdom that is characterized by a love of the home.

I am powerfully drawn to this utopian vision.  Though I cannot imagine the conditions under which it might be accomplished in its entirety, not for me, not at this time, not given the ways that my priorities of family and community currently constrain me, I nevertheless find it a beautiful ideal, one of many often incompatible ideals, to be sure, but no less beautiful for that reason.

Illich’s vision attracts me so strongly because it implies an approach to reading that I find myself insisting upon more and more as time goes by, one that I hope to outline more fully at some later time, one that is characterized by a threefold discipline: close and attentive reading; thoughtful and patient reflection; and learned and leisurely conversation.

What is common in these three things is time.  The text is treated, not as a task to be completed, not as an item to be checked, but as a site through which an intellectual and spiritual discipline can be exercised.  It becomes, to use the dominant metaphor of Illich’s text, a vineyard, a garden, a forest, in which the reader walks and lingers and then shares with other readers.  This approach to the text takes time.  It requires that we make a time, that we create or shape a time that is suitable and respectful of the text and of our fellow readers.

Illich’s utopian vision, therefore, is less about reserving a space for its own sake than it is about reserving a space where time can be dedicated to the needs of a convivial community of reading.  The hoped-for home, in other words, is not primarily a matter of a physical space, though certain physical spaces may be more or less conducive to it.  Rather, it is the opportunity, the time, the discipline to read well and to do so in community, to read in the pursuit of wisdom.

If this is the case, and I believe that it is, then it may be that the hoped-for home is closer to us than it first seemed.  All it would require would be readers committed enough to reading well that they would make the proper space and the proper time for their texts and for each other.  All it would require is for these readers to form intentional community with one another, to go along with one another, to spur each other along the road to reading.

This kind of community probably even exists among us already, at least in part, at least in rudimentary and provisional ways, in the times that we already reserve to reading well, though they be sporadic and uncertain, and in the times that we give our fellow readers around our tables, even if they be infrequent and unpredictable. We must begin by cherishing and nourishing these times of the hoped-for home that we have already been able to fashion in our lives.  These times, however small, however tenuous, are precious.  They must be carefully maintained.

We must then seek diligently to expand the compass of the hoped-for home, to discipline ourselves to a slow and careful reading, to a thoughtful and patient reflection, to a learned and leisurely conversation.  We must make of these things a kind of all-informing passion, a passion that comes to order the life of the mind in such a way that it opens onto worship.  I am much concerned lately with how I might begin to accomplish this in my own hoped-for home.

The garden marks the space of the cultivated between the spaces of the home and the world, between the spaces of the domestic and the natural.  This cultivated space lies beyond the home, but it is nevertheless a part of the home, an extension of the home into the world.  It is the space that marks the transition from the domestic to the natural.  It signals that the door to the home is near but has not yet been entered, that the threshold of the home is close at hand but has not yet been crossed. It bears the marks of both the domestic and the natural, and so it is less a border between them than it is a borderland, a place of transition, where they are brought into a relation.

It is the space in which the domestic orders the natural so that it might be more aesthetic or more productive, but it is also a space that is always open, by necessity, to some degree or another, to the natural.  This is true even in the most urban situations, even where the natural has been most disrupted and displaced, even where the natural has been reduced only to the weather and to whatever remnant plants and animals have learned to survive in the midst of human development.  Even in these places, so long as the home is bordered by a garden, though it be only a hanging planter or a window box, the cultivated space marks the transition between the home and whatever remains of the natural, and it comes to offer itself as a space where the natural and the domestic both might better live and grow.

The nature of the cultivated space, therefore, marks the nature of the relation between the domestic and the natural in any given place, whether it be the unrelieved concrete of an urban neighbourhood, or the vast and ordered lawns of suburbia, or the fields of the farmhouse.  In each case, the garden reveals how the domestic relates to the natural.  For this reason, the creation of a garden is more than a merely aesthetic or a merely productive act.  It is also a political and a social act, and the choices that are made in its construction are not without their political and social significance.  The choice of whether to make the garden organic or edible or native; the choice of whether to make it hospitable to whatever might enter it, whether it be human or animal or vegetable; the choice of whether to keep only carefully maintained lawns and a few well pruned shrubs or to have a whole range of plants and trees: these all become significant, because they reveal how we cultivate our relation to the natural.

I was supposed to give a weekend of talks on home and the threshold last year about this time, and I promised a reader that I would post my notes, but the talks were subsequently postponed until the fall, and then I forgot about posting them entirely. I ran across them this afternoon, however, as I was going through a completed notebook before filing it, so I thought I might still post them here, though it is now long after the fact. They are not notes in the sense of an outline for any talk or talks in particular, because I do not really speak in this way. Rather, they are the short reflections on the home that informed my thinking going into those talks. I am posting them merely as I wrote them, almost unedited.

The limits of the home are defined by the beyond of the home, by the street, by the neighbourhood, by the town or the countryside. The home is the home because of what is not the home, because it divides the space of the world into the at home and the not at home. In a significant sense, therefore, the home can only know itself as home to the degree that it knows what is not home. The home is defined by what is beyond the home.

To say this most radically, I can perhaps become at home only through my practice of being not at home.  The home is always, by definition, distinct from what is not home, but the practice of home begins when I am not a at home.  The practice of the home begins as a practice of the street and of the neighbourhood.  It is a practice of  the road.

The practice of the road is a practice of openness to encountering the other person.  It is an openness to being moved by the other person.  It does not try to manufacture an encounter through its own activity.  It maintains an active openness to what may encounter me.  It is an active passivity, an active waiting.  It maintains an availability to the approach of the other person, a kind of hospitality in advance.

The practice of the road is pedestrian.  The driver is transported and so is closed to the other person. The pedestrian is not transported.  The pedestrian is always potentially open to encounter.

The road is the image and the metaphor of what is not the home.  It leads to and from the home.  It begins and ends at the doorway of the home.  There is no home without a road, no home from which one does not depart and to which one does not return.  Without this coming and going, without this journeying to and from the home, there is no home, not of any kind.

My journeying is always in relation to the home.  I circulate around this pole, around this center.  It remains before me and behind me, an object of my longing and my nostalgia.

When I am encountered on the road, I am always encountered in relation to the home, in relation to my coming and going, in relation to my longing and nostalgia, in relation to my ground and my center.  My response to the other is grounded precisely in this relation to home.  The home determines how I turn myself toward the other, how I hold myself open to the other, how I maintain myself in anticipation of the other.

The road is the place where I encounter the other, always, without exception.  There is no other place where I am confronted by the other.  If I am confronted by the other, I am on the road, no matter where I am.

The confrontation, the encounter, brings me alongside the other, even if only for a moment.  It turns me in the same direction. It causes us me walk with the other.  The road makes us companions, fellow travelers, strangers walking in the same path.

The place of the threshold is the limit of the home and the not home.  It is the membrane.  It is the hymen.  It is the sacred curtain.

The door cannot be left open, not always.  Only the home can be always open.  If the door is always open, if anyone can enter the home at any time, the limit between the home and the road is erased.  The home ceases to exist as a home.  It ceases to be distinguishable from the road.  Its intimate space is no longer distinct from the public space of the world.

The open home is not the home that has its doors open to the other always and in every case.  It is the home that is always open to the possibility that the door might be opened to the other always and in every case.  It is the home that desires that the door might indeed be opened to the other always and in every case, though this desire always remains impossible.

The open home always anticipates the other’s approach.  It always receives the other at the threshold, even if, for whatever reason, the other cannot be invited across the threshold at this time.  It is a home that always welcomes the approach of the other, even if this welcome cannot become an invitation across the threshold.  The open home is not an absolute hospitality.

At the same time, the practice of the door expresses itself as a desire for the invitation.  The open home may not be able to extend an invitation to the other in every case, but it always desires to do so.  It is always broken-hearted when it cannot do so.  The open home is always characterized by a willingness to lay aside whatever it can in order that an invitation might be extended.  It delights to sacrifice itself in order to receive the approach of the other with an invitation.

The open home is essentially, but not absolutely, hospitible.  It does not make of one the host and of another the guest.  Its desire  is to make everyone at home, to whatever degree it is able.  It does not reserve the invitation for an occasion, because its invitation is not to an occasion.  Its invitation is to the home, as it is at that moment, as it is striving to be at that moment.

It was a cold, cloudy, sleety day today, one of those days that will consent neither to be truly nice nor to be truly horrible, settling for meteorological mediocrity, which is the worst of all weather.

I decided that the day called for nesting. The kids and I made a pact not to leave the house for anything short of an emergency. We made hot chocolate. We brought our blankets down to the livingroom and watched a movie. We made a tent around one of the radiators and read some stories. We nested.

It reminded me of what Gaston Bachelard has to say about nests in The Poetics of Space.  With nests, he says, “we place ourselves at the origin of confidence in the world; we receive a beginning of confidence, an urge toward cosmic confidence.”  It was just this confidence that we built today in the face of a February day in Canada: the confidence of the nest.