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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?