Enough : Jacques Lezra

All the same, it is true enough that when we say that something, some phrase or some statement, is “true enough” we are speaking, as Ishmael says of Elijah, an “ambiguous, half-hinting, half-revealing, shrouded sort of talk.” We will want to say something more than what is “just enough” or “true enough,” especially if we are speaking to a judge; and if we who are judges are listening, we will want to hear something more than what is “true enough,” or “ambiguous, half-hinting, half-revealing, shrouded sort of talk.”

When the so-called “post-amble” to South Africa’s 1993 Interim Constitution, titled “On National Unity and Reconciliation,” called for granting “amnesty . . . in respect of acts, omissions and offences associated with political objectives . . . [based in] mechanisms, criteria, and procedures, including tribunals,” it laid the groundwork for juridical, or semi-juridical “mechanisms” that would eventually require of witnesses that they produce, each on his or her own, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”15 That was the question and the requirement put to witnesses before the South African Truth and Reconciliation, as Tutu recalls in his memoirs—though, as he also recalls, it is put in the context of a “safe and affirming environment.”16 The South African Council of Churches took that requirement to mark out the characteristically moral as well as the juridical register on which the tribunals would operate.

This is what the Council of Churches heard and read in the “postamble,” and it is what allowed them to summarize the Constitution’s closing clauses by saying that: “The Commission for Truth and Reconciliation is not another Nuremberg. It turns its back on any desire for revenge. It represents an extraordinary act of generosity by a people who only insist that the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth be told.”17

The step from “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” to “truth enough” or “enough truth” is an exceptionally complicated, tricky one, for surely “the whole truth” includes “enough truth” within it. Is it possible, under what conditions and to what ends, to hold together these two requirements, the requirement that a witness produce “the whole truth” and the requirement that “the truth” be subject to the test and the constraint of sufficiency and “enoughness”?

If the witness, judge or prophet that we encounter is of the sort that Queequeg and Ishmael run into on Nantucket, he will awake in us a desire for more truth than we have delivered to him. We will tell him—and he is at the same time a judge and a witness, a judge of the sufficiency or insufficiency of our truth by virtue of having been a witness; he is a witness of past events and, mysteriously, prophetically, of what is yet to come, what is still to be fabricated—we will tell him “enough of the truth,” at any rate all the truth we know, which is all true enough. But when he tells us that our tale is “true enough” we will want to hear, because it is just and only “true enough,” we will want to hear about “Captain Ahab; and the leg he had lost; and the Cape Horn fit; and the silver calabash; and what Captain Peleg had said of him, when [Ishmael] left the ship the day previous; and the prediction of the squaw Tistig; and the voyage [that Ishmael and Queequeg have] bound [themselves] to sail; and a hundred other shadowy things.”

In short—when what is “true enough” and only “true enough” comes up against the witness, the prophet and the judge, then this is where further stories begin, where “shadowy things” are fabricated, literary things, or other forms of truth-telling and other grounds for evaluating whether, indeed, the truth that has emerged is “enough of the truth for” one thing or another, whether it is enough or not quite enough, or too much.

This is true enough, yes. The plurals here are central, and it is on these that I will conclude. They mark the difference from the tactic employed by the US Supreme Court in the Whitman case, where the procedural rule that context governs the disambiguation of ambivalent terms, and provides enough clarity for the court to decide, is granted a stipulative force that hangs on the unacknowledged fiction that the community of users of language is, at any point in time, not a fabrication, but a fact.

It is precisely by insisting on the fabricability, on the “fixion,” both the fixity, the fictionality, and the constant fabricability of the community and of the plural positions that we can occupy or be made to occupy within it, simultaneously and sequentially, that Melville, like Ishmael, and like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, make the twin principles of “enoughness” and not-enoughness emerge as a plausible, even sufficient, political principles. And this is because all of them understand that this “occupation” of positions is an endeavor fabricated, violently as well as imaginatively, where the rough seas of linguistic contingency beat upon and bear desires which are both our own and not our own, both hidden from and manifest in our articulation.

Ah yes. That, it seems to me, is indeed enough.


Jacques Lezra is Professor of Comparative Literature, English, German, Spanish and Portuguese, and Chair of the Comparative Literature Department at New York University.


Published on July 1, 2013

15. “Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 200 of 1993” (Interim Constitution of South Africa). Available online at www.info.gov.za/documents/constitution/93cons.htm#CHAP15. For the reception of and futures of the South African constitutions, see Ubuntu and the Law: African Ideals and Post-Apartheid Jurisprudence, eds. Drucilla Cornell and Nyoko Muvangua (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

16. Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999), n/p.

17. “The Truth Will Set you Free (South African Council of Churches brochure, 1995), 24. Cited in John De Gruchy, The Church Struggle in South Africa, 25th anniversary edition (London: SCM Press/First Fortress Press, 2005), 224.

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