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Jacques Derrida against the system

A new biography reviewed.

Derrida: a Biography
Benoît Peeters
Polity Press, 700pp, £25

When the French philosopher Jacques Derrida died in 2004, his critics in this country were vociferously unsorry. His friends, who organised a conference in London to say a decent goodbye, also did not spare their criticisms. Jean-Luc Nancy, whom Benoît Peeters suggests Derrida regarded as a possible heir, spoke of Derrida’s “secret madness”. While Peeters’s engaging and thoroughly readable biography sheds occasional light on this madness, its strength is elsewhere. It excels at evoking the huge energy and application of the world’s most travelled philosopher. If you’ve ever given up on Derrida, this portrait of him as a lovable, thin-skinned and narcissistic outsider in France who shot to fame in the United States should make you reconsider.

Born in Algeria in 1930 into a Sephardic Jewish family that had become more or less French, Jackie Derrida (he only became “Jacques” when he moved to mainland France) grew up emotional and outgoing but also conflicted. Passionate about French literature and a great reader, he loved fast cars and swimming in the sea. He inherited a loudness from his mother and confessed to being a “macho Mediterranean” when it came to women.

In 1942, with Algeria an outpost of Vichy France, he was barred from school because he was Jewish. That trauma inclined him to take education on his own terms. This resulted in a constant struggle when he went through the gruelling French system to become an academic philosopher. He had to learn to keep his voice down. His health in his late teens and early twenties was poor and he failed exams repeatedly. The Algerian war was still ongoing when he returned with his wife, Marguerite, to do his military service as a teacher.

He and Marguerite had married, away from their respective families, on Derrida’s first research trip to the US. Despite his dalliances, their partnership lasted 47 years. Marguerite had her own career as a practising psychoanalyst. Particularly in the early years of his career, his solid home life contrasted with the difficulties he faced being accepted by the French university system.

Derrida confessed that he would like to have been a poet. His twin loves of literature and philosophy created tensions for him as a student and made his work difficult to classify ever after. He thought that the great philosophical texts were read too restrictively. He was determined to render them “undecidable”. With a literary feeling for ambiguity and a novel twist on the philosophy of language, he answered Heidegger’s call to dismantle the old order of metaphysics. This was the birth of that much misused term, “deconstuction”. Freud and Joyce were powerful influences on him, too.

He found himself thrust into politics as a witness and occasionally as a reluctant player. If he had an initial cause, it was tolerance of complexity. All his views and the philosophy that underpinned them were based on opposing fashions and conventions and a refusal to belong to any intellectual community. He always feared ideological and verbal “traps” and early in his career refused to be photographed. He suspected the media to his dying day and, for all these reasons, much of his work is unquotable. Democracy becomes totalitarian, Derrida said, when there could be no secrets.

His stance against ideology made him unique on the politically charged Paris scene, where he was on the left but not a Marxist. After 1968, when the literary Maoists grouped around the journal Tel Quel and the French Communist Party were at each others’ throats, Derrida RAYMOND DEPARDON/MAGNUM PHOTOS picked his way with extreme care. Much later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the whole world had buried Marxism “like a dead dog”, he wrote his book on the importance of Marx.

When Derrida’s career in the US began to take off in the mid-1970s, he was lionised at Johns Hopkins and Yale. He found his place there not as a philosopher but in departments of English and comparative literature. Where he belonged was at the interface of literature and German philosophy: alongside Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger.

With a novelist’s instinct for human contradiction, Derrida defended his friend and sponsor at Yale, Paul de Man, from the fascist taint on his past. He also defended Heidegger’s reputation against an American establishment obsessed with the Holocaust. He wasn’t always right and friends encouraged him to make his ethical positions clearer in his later career. Yet he always challenged whatever “system” he encountered.

In the eight years since his death, his importance has become better appreciated. He buried philosophy and left a unique philosophical example in his wake.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis