Kofman is known for her autobiographical philosophical works inspired by her childhood and her wide reading. The trauma of World War II and the Holocaust deeply influenced Kofman’s writing; Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) deals with her father’s arrest by the Vichy police, and later death, during World War II. Her work focused mainly on the writings of Nietzsche and Freud, and she also pondered the “question of woman” and the implications of femininity. Kofman firmly believed that reading itself was a political act, and that it was her purpose to reread the writings of great thinkers of the Judeo-Christian tradition. A skilled and passionate educator, Kofman taught first at the secondary school level and then at the Sorbonne, where she finally received tenure a year before she took her own life.
The Holocaust, the study of philosophy, and the undergoing of analysis—all three profoundly marked the course of Sarah Kofman’s life and are what link the texts that she authored. Thus one cannot adequately summarize Kofman’s texts and intellectual positions without invoking her biography. Yet she repeatedly denied that her autobiography could be found anywhere other than in her most impressive bibliography. Her oeuvre includes nearly thirty books and numerous articles on a wide range of authors of philosophical, literary, and psychoanalytic works, ranging from Empedocles (of Acragas in Sicily, c. 492–432 BCE) and Rousseau to Shakespeare and Diderot. In fact, Kofman, an expert reader of Freud, Nietzsche, and Derrida, created a new form of philosophical analysis and writing, a kind of philosophical (auto)biography which exposes how an author’s desires and ideas are inextricably woven together in the fabric of his or her texts. Kofman even devoted two books to the topic of autobiography: Autobiogriffures (1976) on Cat Murr by Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann (1776–1822) and Explosion I (1992) on Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo.
Despite the fact that Kofman maintained that her “identity” was constituted by the authors she read and by the citations she employed in her writings, she began to publish more explicitly autobiographical writings in the last years of her life. The year 1987 saw the publication of Smothered Words, a book that bears three dedications: the first to the memory of her father who died at Auschwitz; the second to Robert Antelme, author and survivor of the camps; and the last in homage to Maurice Blanchot, whose theoretical texts ask how one can write after the Holocaust. In this profound and painful meditation on the unspeakable events of the war, Kofman revealed that her father had been deported to Drancy on July, 16, 1942, and was reported to have been buried alive at Auschwitz for praying, rather than working, on the Sabbath.
In 1994, at the age of fifty-nine, Kofman published perhaps the most difficult of all her texts, her autobiography entitled Rue Ordener, Rue Labat. On the opening page of this slim volume, Kofman suggests that the many books that she penned may have been the necessary detours to allow her to give voice to “‘that’ [‘ça’].” In an unadorned, almost childlike narrative, Kofman tells the story of her life from the age of eight to eighteen. The reader learns that Kofman was born in Paris on Rosh Hashanah, September 14, 1934, to Polish immigrant parents, Fineza (Koenig) Kofman and Rabbi Berek Kofman, who in 1929 had moved to France, where they planned to raise their children. She recounts almost without pathos the trauma of having her father taken as part of a roundup conducted by the French police and of being forced to go into hiding, often separated from her mother and her five siblings, for the duration of the war.
In spite of the tragic circumstances of her childhood, the “child” in Kofman’s autobiography is resilient, resourceful, and precocious. Indeed, in retrospect, Kofman’s readers can detect the defiant voice of this child throughout her corpus. The title of her first book, L’enfance de l’art [The Childhood of Art] (1970), reveals much about the way that Kofman viewed and practiced her art of philosophy. L’enfance de l’art, a reading of Freud’s analysis of artistic genius, has a double resonance in French—meaning both “the childhood or infancy of art” and “child’s play.” Many friends and colleagues, who often teased Kofman about her “little-girl size,” noted the way she approached the great thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition with child-like irreverence, which allowed her to play with their ideas, laugh at their poses, and put her finger on their blind spots. It thus comes as no surprise that Kofman loved to laugh and knew the value of jokes, a pleasure she shares with her readers in many of her texts. Kofman even dedicated an entire text to the study of Witz (Joke/Wit) in Freud in Pourquoi rit-on? Freud et le mot d’esprit (1986).
The Philosophy of the Feminine
Yet, for Kofman, humor was not a way to deflect the most serious philosophical matters, but a way to reveal them all the more deeply. One of these matters, to which Kofman devoted much of her publishing career, is how “woman” or the “feminine” functions as a blind spot, perhaps a privileged blind spot, in the philosophical or speculative systems of many esteemed thinkers in the Western canon (Hermansen). What interested Kofman was not only “the woman at the interior of philosophy” but also “the repression by male philosophers of femininity in themselves” (Guertin). Although Kofman’s incisive reading of Freud’s theories of femininity in The Enigma of Woman: Woman in Freud’s Writings (1980) is her best-known book on the question of woman, she produced many other trenchant texts on the feminine in philosophy, most notably Aberrations: Le devenir-femme d’Auguste Comte (1978) and Le respect des femmes (Kant et Rousseau) (1982).
Even though the question of woman emerges with great insistence in her work, Kofman never considered herself a feminist activist. She firmly believed that her feminist gesture was to reread the great texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition; because, for Kofman, reading is itself a political act. In an interview with Roland Jaccard she argued that “among the many human capacities, the ability to kill and the ability to ‘tenir parole’ (that is to say, to speak and to let speak, but also to keep promises) are the two most important. To learn to read well is to teach others to ‘tenir parole.’ In doing so, one impedes killing, that is to say, one postpones the return of Auschwitz” (Jaccard).
Professor of Philosophy
As a professor, Kofman took the task of teaching her students to read with the utmost seriousness. By all accounts a skilled and passionate teacher, she dedicated all her professional life to the teaching of philosophy. At the beginning of her career, she taught philosophy at two lycées (secondary schools)—first in Toulouse at Lycée Saint Sernin during the years 1960–1963 and then in Paris at the Lycée Claude Monet from 1963–1970. In 1970 Kofman took a position as maître-assistante at the University of Paris I, Sorbonne, where she remained a professor until the end of her life. Despite her many years of teaching and her remarkable body of work, Kofman was repeatedly denied tenure and promotion and hence remained a maître de conférences until 1991. Kofman never attributed her being denied promotion to being female or Jewish. Rather she firmly believed that she was discriminated against because in both her teaching and writing she championed marginal and radical thinkers, especially Nietzsche and Freud (Rodgers). In 1988 a number of well-respected intellectuals, including Jacques Derrida, Emanuel Levinas, Jean-François Lyotard, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean-Luc Nancy, addressed a formal complaint about this “scandalous injustice” to the then Minister of Education, Lionel Jospin. It was not until three years later that Kofman was finally granted a promotion to the rank of professeur at the age of fifty-seven.
After writing Rue Ordener, Rue Labat and her last book, Le mépris des Juifs: Nietzsche, les Juifs, l’antisémitisme (1994), Kofman became unable to do the things she loved most dearly—reading, writing, listening to music, watching films and looking at works of art. Later that year, on October 15, 1994, the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Nietzsche’s birth, Sarah Kofman ended her own life at the age of sixty.
The Childhood of Art: An Interpretation of Freud’s Aesthetics (1970)
Nietzsche and Metaphor (1972)
Camera Obscura: of Ideology (1973)
The Enigma of Woman: Woman in Freud’s Writings (1980)
Le respect des femmes (Kant et Rousseau) (1982)
Lectures de Derrida (1984)
Mélancolie de l’art (1985)
Pourquoi rit-on? Freud et le mot d’esprit (1986)
Smothered Words (1987)
Socrates: Fictions of a Philosopher (1989)
Explosion I: De l’“Ecce Homo” de Nietzsche (1992)
Explosion II: Les enfants de Nietzsche (1993)
Rue Orderner, Rue Labat (1994)
Le mépris des Juifs: Neitzsche, les Juifs, l’antisémitisme (1994).
Collin, Françoise, and Françoise Proust, eds. Les Cahiers du Grif. Special issue: “Sarah Kofman”(1997).
Deutscher, Penelope. “Pardon: Sarah Kofman and Jacques Derrida (On Mourning, Debt and Seven Friendships).”Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 31/1 (2000): 21–35.
Deutscher, Penelope, and Kelly Oliver, eds. Enigmas: Essays on Sarah Kofman. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Derrida, Jacques. “……..” (Homage for Sarah Kofman). In The Work of Mourning, edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Fermon, Nicole. “Conversion and Oral Assimilation” College Literature 28/1 (2001): 155–169.
Guertin, Ghyslaine. “Autour de Socrate(s): Rencontre avec Sarah Kofman.” Interview with Sarah Kofman. La petite revue de philosophie 10 (Spring 1989): 120.
Hermansen, Joke. “La question des femmes: Une impasse pour les philosophes.” Interview with Sarah Kofman. Les Cahiers du Grif 4b (Spring 1992): 65–74.
Jaccard, Roland. “Apprendre aux hommes à tenir parole.” Interview with Sarah Kofman. Le Monde (April 27–28, 1986), vii.
Large, Duncan. “Double [‘Wham!’] Sarah Kofman on Ecce Homo” German Life and Letters 48/4 (1995): 441–462.
Rodgers, Catherine. “Relire Simone de Beauvoir.” Interview with Sarah Kofman. Les Temps Modernes 601 (October–November 1998): 26.
Smock, Ann. “Translator’s Introduction” In Rue Ordener, Rue Labat. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), vii-xiii.