An Irishman's Diary

 

SINCE his death in 2004, the reputation of the philosopher/theorist, Jacques Derrida, whose name is synonymous with “deconstruction”, has gone from strength to strength. A man of immense intellect and boundless energy – his publications output of more than 70 books is nothing short of remarkable – he never attained the type of respect among the French academic establishment that he enjoyed in the United States, where “French theory” became a growth industry in university campuses from the 1970s onwards.

His ostracism in France may have had something to do with the fact that his approach was very far removed from the traditional discourse that the French system demands. Also, he is a figure whom it is difficult to situate in intellectual terms: was he a philosopher or a literary critic? In a sense he was neither and both. Impossible to classify, he inspired suspicion and adoration in equal measure. Benoît Peeters’s biography, simply entitled Derrida, published by Flammarion, is the first to be published since the author’s death.

Peeters is conscious of the magnitude of his task: after all, Derrida was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. Although the biography contains 740 pages, one has the impression that it could have been a lot longer, so rich was the life and the work of this exceptional thinker. Also, the biographer was keenly aware of the wariness displayed by Derrida towards biography: in one of his conference papers, for example, he cited the following comment of Heidegger in relation to Aristotle: “He was born, he thought, he died”. All the rest was just anecdotal, in Derrida’s view. However, Peeters states that writing the life of Derrida means telling the story of a Jew from Algeria, who was (temporarily) banned from school at 12 years of age and subsequently became the most translated French philosopher of all time. It means coming to grips with a complex, tormented man who always felt like an interloper in the French university system. There is something unique about the capacity of the pied-noirs, the French colonists in Algeria, to view French society through the eyes of the “outsider”. Small wonder, then, given his origins, that the “Other” forms such an important part of Derrida’s philosophy.

Generations of Irish third-level students from the 1970s onwards were exposed to the ideas of French theory in faculties as diverse as sociology, anthropology, English and, of course, French. It challenged them to question the traditional trust placed in language to convey meaning. It also taught them to question “givens” and to deconstruct myths that are often treated as reality. In the current crisis we are undergoing, such skills could prove invaluable.

From the time he came to Paris to attend the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in 1949 to his death in 2004, Derrida was at the centre of some of the most seismic events in world history. He would be accepted into the École Normale Supérieure in 1952, which marked the beginning of a long association with the venerable rue d’Ulm institution as a student and professor. Louis Althusser was a close friend and colleague, but he was also close to the writers Jean Genet and Hélène Cixous.

Paul de Man was the person responsible for establishing and spreading his reputation in America, where he would spend a lot of time giving seminars and serving as visiting professor in various prestigious institutions. With other philosophers such as Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas, his relations were marked by controversy and the occasional bitter exchange. Life in academe is not renowned for its serenity, but some of what is described by Peeters is nothing short of vicious.

The Algerian war preoccupied Derrida, as it did Camus, another pied-noir, and his family had to move to France to escape the atrocities that preceded independence. He lived through the turmoil of May ’68 and had a lifelong association with leftist politics without ever aligning himself definitively to communism or socialism. He was shocked by the repercussions caused by 9/11 and visited New York shortly afterwards. He was totally committed to his students, whose work he always corrected with care and whose careers he promoted zealously. Shortly before his death, it was strongly rumoured that he would be awarded the Nobel prize, but it was just one more honour that escaped him.

Reading this biography, one’s respect for Derrida grows as one discovers the human side behind the public persona. He was a child of the Mediterranean who experienced rejection on numerous occasions because of his “otherness”. He suffered from sporadic depression, and had one well-publicised romantic entanglement that caused great pain to him and those close to him. He knew all about alienation and, while he was capable of vindictiveness, he was also prepared to mend bridges and start afresh. All in all, Peeters’ work shows us a new dimension of Derrida and makes the man, if not his work, less impenetrable.