"Give me a break!" This expression appears to be an imperative or a request. In colloquial English, it can be either, or it can be uttered with various degrees of irony as a complaint, an objection, or a reproof. I want to begin by considering it in a relatively serious way, by asking what it means to ask someone to give, and to give a break. According to some analyses in a certain discourse on the gift (for example, in Nietzsche, Bataille, Levinas, and Derrida), the gift is always a break of some sort. It is an interruption, an excess, an incalculable intervention. It breaks with a circle or cycle of economic exchange, of debt and credit. A true gift (to borrow one of Emerson's terms) cannot be one that was anticipated or one for which return is expected. In one sense, then, reading very literally, "give me a break" is a tautology, for it says "give me a gift," where the gift is understood as rupture and disruption. Or perhaps the break requested is for me, for the speaker of the phrase, who asks for special consideration; while it may be recognized that there are a set of laws or rules in place that all are expected to follow, the speaker appeals to his or her special circumstances, including perhaps a relation to the one addressed. So it can become a demand for justice, for that absolutely unique justice that escapes rule and law. More specifically, in terms of common usage, the expression is frequently a request for time, for freedom from some constraints or expectations, possibly a petition to be released from a deadline, or from some constrictive schedule. It asks for a break in time, a break from or interruption in a rigorous agenda; it asks for something like an intercalary day, as in the time given at New Year's in Babylon when there was a festive day that did not appear on the calendar, but that was understood to be available for camivalesque reversals of and variations on normative social codes. The gift and time-these two themes come together in recent texts such as Derrida's Given Time (1992), but also in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Gifts" (see Emerson 1990), which I propose to read.
Copyright © 1999 Penn State University Press. This article first appeared in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 13.2 (1999): 98-113.
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Shapiro, Gary. ""Give Me a Break!" Emerson on Fruit and Flowers." The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 13.2 (1999): 98-113.