First posted March 29, 2013
Derrida: A Biography, by Benoît Peeters
Reviewed by Emily Eakin
In May of 1951, at the age of twenty, Jacques Derrida took the entrance exams for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure a second time, having failed, as many students do, in his first attempt the previous year. Fueled by amphetamines after a sleepless week, he choked on the written portion and turned in a blank sheet of paper. The same month, he was awarded a dismal 5 out of 20 on his qualifying exam for a license in philosophy. “The answers are brilliant in the very same way that they are obscure,” the examiner wrote, encapsulating a sentiment about Derrida’s work that has since become a commonplace:
An exercise in virtuosity, with undeniable intelligence, but with no particular relation to the history of philosophy….Can come back when he is prepared to accept the rules and not invent where he needs to be better informed.
In America, Derrida, who died in 2004, left as big a mark on humanities departments as any single thinker of the past forty years—according to a recent survey, only works by Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu are cited more often. But in France, the gatekeepers of higher learning regarded him with ambivalence and, to his devastation, kept him at arm’s length for much of his career. According to a new biography by Benoît Peeters, Derrida, a French Jew from Algiers ill-prepared for the intellectual grind and noxious food of Parisian student life, may even have “contemplated” suicide after his first attempt to get into the École Normale. He finally gained admission on his third try, despite a disastrous performance in his orals. Asked to comment on a passage from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, he later recounted:
I decided that this text was a trap…that everything about it, in its form, was ambiguous, implied, convoluted, complicated, suggested, murmured….I deployed all my resources to uncover a range of meanings fanning out from each sentence, each word.
The jurors were unimpressed. “Look, this text is quite simple,” one complained. “You’ve simply made it more complicated and laden with meaning by adding ideas of your own.”
It’s hard to say what’s more remarkable: that the so-called father of deconstruction was already hatching his apostasy while just barely out of his teens, or that the undertaking involved so much suffering. Peeters’ Derrida is a nervous wreck: “a fragile and tormented man,” prone to nausea, insomnia, exhaustion, and despair. By the summer of 1960, after failing to get a promised post as a maître assistant at the Sorbonne and having spent the year teaching in a provincial capital instead, he was on Anafranil, one of the original anti-depressants, which had just appeared on the market. During another bout of the blues, he wrote to a friend from his infirmary bed, “I’m no good for anything except taking the world apart and putting it together again (and I manage the latter less and less frequently).”
That’s not a bad description of deconstruction, an exercise in which unraveling—of meaning and coherence, of the kind of binary logic that tends to populate philosophical texts—is the path to illumination. In Derrida’s reading, Western philosophers’ preoccupation with first principles, a determination to capture reality, truth, “presence,”—what he called in reference to the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl “the thing itself”—was doomed. He traced this impulse in thinkers from Aristotle to Heidegger, famously arguing, for example, that a tendency to favor the immediacy of speech over the remoteness of writing was untenable. (Aristotle’s formulation: “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.”) Through a series of deft and delicate maneuvers, Derrida sought to show that speech is inextricable from writing, no more or less authentic. The difference between the two depends, as all differences do, on a process of enforced absence or repression: a is a only because it is not b, and thus b is never entirely out of the picture.
With the tenacity of a gumshoe, he haunted texts by Plato, Rousseau, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Marx, and Hegel, among dozens of others, exposing the ways in which the subjugated or banished half of a crucial pair—inside/outside, man/woman, reason/madness, signifier/signified—continued to plague its partner…
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