Derrida: A Biography 
by Benoît Peeters, translated by Andrew Brown.
Polity, 629 pp., £25, November 2012, 978 0 7456 5615 1
Show More
Show More

‘Anyone reading these notes without knowing me,’ Jacques Derrida wrote in his diary in 1976, ‘without having read and understood everything of what I’ve written elsewhere, would remain blind and deaf to them, while he would finally feel that he was understanding easily.’ If you think you can understand me by reading my diaries, he might have been warning future biographers, think again. Derrida worried that the diaries might one day be privileged over his philosophical writing or, worse, used as a way of ‘finally’ steering through the obstacles he had consciously placed between himself and his readers.Comprehension – particularly if acquired ‘easily’, a Derridean slur – was one of the illusions of ‘mastery’ that he set out to puncture. Language, for Derrida, is always saying more than we want it to say; it has a tendency to undermine itself, even to turn against itself; there is no final liberation into some utopia of clarity, transparency and understanding. Derrida, who died in 2004, never wrote a memoir; he claimed he’d been ‘denied narrative’, as if it were a cruel punishment. Yet he wrote constantly about himself, in what his biographer Benoît Peeters calls ‘memoirs that are not memoirs’. The first half of The Post Card (1980) is an epistolary novel composed of envois to an unnamed lover. His 1991 essay ‘Circumfession’, written in stream-of-consciousness as his mother lay dying, moves between reflections on circumcision, death and St Augustine, and an elegiac remembrance of his childhood. His real ambition, Peeters suggests, was to be a poet or novelist; towards the end of his life, he spoke less of his philosophical legacy than of his desire to leave ‘traces in the history of the French language’. By scattering his writing with clues and apparent confessions, he played a coy game of disclosure and concealment, inviting curiosity while refusing to show himself clearly. Still, his writings are a rich guide to the concerns that drove him: our longing for a reassuring ‘centre’ that could anchor thought; the West’s troubled relationship to its colonial ‘other’; the agonies of Jewish identity; trauma and mourning; the power of the secret.

Peeters, whose previous book was a biography of Hergé, the creator of Tintin, is not a Derridean, but his book has qualities Derrida might have appreciated, above all a supreme patience with intellectual difficulty and abstention from moral judgment. He has done a heroic amount of research, interviewing more than a hundred of Derrida’s friends and associates. He also had the co-operation of Derrida’s widow, Marguerite. But his principal source of information is Derrida’s own writing: some eighty books, as well as the many letters and journals in archives in France and at the University of California, Irvine, where he taught for many years. Derrida saved everything he wrote: he regarded every scrap as a ‘trace’, an almost sacred emblem of survival – and all writing, from poetry to post-its, had philosophical implications. Peeters puts Derrida’s professional writing and these traces on an equal footing, using the one to illuminate the other. We see his many sides: a loyal friend and irrepressible seducer; a critic of dogma who couldn’t bring himself to admit his own errors; a man who loathed tribalism but was so thin-skinned and so in need of adoration that he ended up leading his own academic tribe.

Derrida’s ancestors were Sephardic Jews from Spain who fled to Algeria during the Inquisition; they spoke Ladino, Hebrew and Arabic. But the Jews of Algeria – unlike the Muslim population – were made French citizens in 1870, four decades after the conquest, and by the time Derrida was born in 1930, his family no longer spoke any of its ‘native’ languages. Growing up in El Biar, just outside Algiers, Jackie Derrida – he didn’t become Jacques until he moved to Paris – often had the feeling that French was not his language: ‘I speak only one language,’ as he put it, ‘and it is not my own.’ Integration into the Republic had liberated Jews from their inferior status as natives, but they still faced severe anti-semitism from the colons and the resentment of Algeria’s Arabs and Berbers, the oppressed indigènes who remained disenfranchised. To be an Algerian Jew was to be caught between the opposing sides of what would soon become a war of decolonisation.

The Derrida family home was a sanctuary, but even there, he said, he felt like a ‘precious but so vulnerable intruder’, since he was born after the death of an older son, Paul, at three months. His mother, Georgette, whom he adored, insisted on finishing a poker game when she went into labour with him (she was to remain sparing with her affection). But the event that established Derrida’s sense of being an outsider – the first ‘earthquake’, as he put it – took place when the Vichy government stripped Algerian Jews of citizenship and he was expelled from school. Being moved to a school for Jewish children only sharpened his feelings of ‘ill-being’, and he was relieved to return to his old school after the Allies landed. In an interview with Elisabeth Roudinesco many years later, Derrida said that, though ‘deeply wounded by anti-semitism’ – a wound that ‘has never completely healed’ – he was too beset by ‘malaise’ to enjoy ‘any kind of membership in a group’. Yet Peeters gives the impression that Derrida was a well-adjusted young man, a reader of Gide, Sartre and Camus who was also good at football and confident with women.

At 19, he left Algeria for the first time to attend the lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, and then the Ecole Normale Supérieure. There he began a long, tortured relationship with the grandes écoles. His teachers often complained that they couldn’t understand his papers: Foucault wasn’t sure whether to give him an A or an F. Derrida’s caïman – the supervisor of his agrégation – was Louis Althusser, who immediately spotted his brilliance, though he too had trouble making sense of his writing. Derrida’s thesis on Husserl revealed him to be, in the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s words, ‘fully armed and helmeted, like Athena’. All he lacked was ‘a certain youth, with its playfulness’. As a student he had frequent bouts of anxiety and depression. ‘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),’ he wrote to a friend.

The world of his childhood was already coming apart when, after a spell at Harvard, where he married Marguerite Aucouturier, a psychoanalyst and the mother of his two older sons, Derrida returned home in 1957, at the height of the war of independence, to do his military service, teaching at a school southwest of Algiers. Derrida’s postcolonialist admirers will be disappointed, and his conservative critics surprised, to learn that he opposed both the FLN and the partisans of Algérie française, holding out for a third way that might allow natives and settlers to share the country, perhaps in a federation with France. (In 1952, Derrida wrote a paper for a history class on ‘our African empire’: the idea of Algeria as an independent, majority-ruled republic was at that time as inconceivable to him as it was to Camus.) When a close friend serving in Brazza wrote to him about the torture of an Arab teenager, Derrida was horrified but refused to take a position: ‘Any attempt to justify or condemn either group is not just obscene, just a way of quietening one’s conscience, but also abstract, “empty”.’

In 1959 Derrida and Marguerite returned to France. After a miserable stint teaching philosophy at a lycée in the provinces which ended in a nervous collapse, he landed a job as a lecturer at the Sorbonne. But his psychological state was precarious, his thoughts never far from his family in Algeria. In 1961, a year before independence, the historian Pierre Nora, a lycée classmate, published a scathing little book, Les Français d’Algérie, pillorying the colons as genocidal in their hatred of Arabs. Derrida sent Nora a 19-page single-spaced letter. He agreed that independence was now inevitable, but recoiled from Nora’s ‘harshly aggressive’ tone, his ‘desire to humiliate’. One couldn’t blame the pieds noirs while letting the true ‘masters’, the French government, off the hook. He was particularly angered by Nora’s scathing depiction of liberals like Derrida as de facto supporters of colonial rule.

Impressed by the letter, Nora suggested that they publish their debate, but Derrida preferred not to. ‘I realise that I love [Algeria] more and more, love it madly,’ he wrote to Nora after spending a final summer there in 1961, ‘which does not contradict the aversion I have long stated for it.’ After independence came in July 1962, his family – 15 of them – camped out at the Derridas’ flat outside Paris, before moving to Nice. Derrida, who would return to Algeria only twice, often spoke of his ‘nostalgeria’; he continued to insist that ‘a different type of settlement’ might have led to less suffering. Peeters suggests that Derrida had Algeria in mind when he expressed the hope that Israelis and Palestinians might find a way to live in a single, binational state. His experience of the Algerian war accounts for the moral sensitivity – the attention to nuance, the refusal to choose sides, as well as the occasional utopianism – of his political thinking.

Derrida’s early work was written in the shadow of decolonisation. His first book, a translation of Husserl’s 43-page Origin of Geometry preceded by a 170-page introduction, was published in 1962, but it wasn’t until 1967 that he made his mark. That year he published three books of astonishing audacity which, taken together, amounted to a declaration of war on structuralism, then all the rage in France: Speech and Phenomena, another study of Husserl; Writing and Difference, a collection of essays originally published in journals like Tel Quel and Critique; and his masterwork, Of Grammatology. Few read the formidably dense Of Grammatology from cover to cover, but it acquired tremendous cachet; a year later, its cover made an appearance in Godard’s Le Gai Savoir. What was Of Grammatology about? When Madeleine, the heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s campus novel The Marriage Plot, asks a young theory-head this question, she is immediately set straight: ‘If it was “about” anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.’

That’s not so far off. In all three books, Derrida’s argument was that Western thought from Plato to Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss had been hopelessly entangled in the illusion that language might provide us with access to a reality beyond language, beyond metaphor: an unmediated experience of truth and being which he called ‘presence’. Even Heidegger, a radical critic of metaphysics, had failed to escape its snares. This illusion, according to Derrida, was the corollary of a long history of ‘logocentrism’: a privileging of the spoken word as the repository of ‘presence’, at the expense of writing, which had been denigrated as a ‘dangerous supplement’, alienated from the voice, secondary, parasitic, even deceitful.

Derrida wanted not only to liberate writing from the ‘repression’ of speech, but to demonstrate that speech itself was a form of writing, a way of referring to things that aren’t there. If logocentrism was a ‘metaphysics of presence’, what he proposed was a poetics of absence – a philosophical echo of Mallarmé’s remark that what defines ‘rose’ as a word is ‘l’absence de toute rose’. Derrida, a passionate reader of Mallarmé, made a similar argument about language by drawing on – and radicalising – Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. Saussure had argued that words acquire their meaning through their difference from other words – specifically from the differences between phonemes – rather than from their referents. Derrida went a step further, arguing that meaning itself is subject to what he deliberately misspelled as différance, a pun on the verb différer, which means both ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer’. (He spelled différance with an ‘a’ rather than an ‘e’ because it could only be read, not heard: a mark of the primacy of writing over speech.) The meaning of what we say, or write (a distinction without a difference, for Derrida), is always ‘undecidable’; it hardly takes shape before it dissolves again in an endless process of differing and deferring.

This set of moves – first, demonstrating that the terms of a binary opposition were in a ‘violent hierarchy’ (speech over writing); second, that that the hierarchy could be inverted, so that the dominant term (speech) is shown to be dependent on, even to be a species of the subordinate term (writing); and third, proposing a new, provisional concept of writing (différance) in order to ‘disorganise’ the ‘inherited order’ – was a strategy typical of deconstruction, the label given to Derrida’s characteristic mode of analysis. (Derrida would reject this description of deconstruction, just as he refused to call it a form of critique, or method, or indeed to give it any positive definition at all; to do so would be to give it an identity as susceptible to deconstruction as any other. Deconstruction was, rather, a process that could be revealed as being at work in a text.) Again and again in his writings, Derrida took the fundamental oppositions (good/evil, dark/light, inside/outside, reason/madness) which, structuralists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss had argued, organise the way we think about the world, and showed how they undid themselves in the canonical texts of the Western tradition. And if you believe, as Derrida did, that our subjectivity is ‘constituted’ in and through language, you have to bid farewell to the idea of a stable, unified self. That notion is another of those reassuring fictions – like god, Spinoza’s ‘substance’, Hegel’s Geist, Heidegger’s ‘being’, Lévi-Strauss’s structures – we have devised in order to escape différance and find some anchor, some ‘meaning of meanings’. We would be better off, he suggested, if we abandoned this search for foundations, and these god-terms, in favour of a ‘Nietzschean affirmation, that is the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and the innocence of becoming … This affirmation then determines the non-centre otherwise than as loss of the centre. And it plays without security.’

With these words in Writing and Difference, Derrida introduced the themes of what would become known as poststructuralism. I quoted one of the more accessible passages: Derrida’s writing pushes the limits of intelligibility, as if that were a requirement of any philosophy devoted to the traps and snares of language. The sheer difficulty of his writing no doubt contributed to its aura, but the main source of its appeal lay in the creativity of Derrida’s reading – or misreading – of the philosophical canon. The Belgian-born literary critic Paul de Man, who founded a school of poststructuralist criticism at Yale and became one of Derrida’s closest friends, recognised his reading of the Western tradition for what it was: ‘a good story’. He showed that Derrida’s Rousseau was a straw man, and that logocentrism had been deconstructed in Rousseau’s writings as nimbly as in Derrida’s. (Rather than engage de Man directly, Derrida simply lifted his notion that major works of literature deconstruct themselves.) Analytic philosophers were even less persuaded by Derrida’s claims, and accused him of everything from nihilism to ‘terrorist obscurantism’. (A notable exception was Richard Rorty, who understood that persuasion wasn’t Derrida’s purpose, and that he was an heir of system-destroyers such as Wittgenstein, who used ‘satires, parodies, aphorisms’ to subvert the efforts of mainstream philosophy to ‘ground’ its claims.) But Derrida’s fable enchanted literary radicals: it allowed partisans of différance to imagine themselves as revolutionaries: one Marxist follower of Derrida argued that the speech/writing distinction was analogous to the bourgeois/proletariat dialectic; a group of young feminists, including Derrida’s friend and fellow Algerian Jew Hélène Cixous, teased out the implications of différance for gender. Derrida – paying them homage and seeing an opportunity to expand his following – began to speak of ‘phallogocentrism’.

He, however, refused to spell out his own politics. He was a philosopher, not a polemicist. He considered himself a man of the left, but the call to choose sides in the class struggle or the Cold War struck him as a betrayal of deconstructionist first principles, an abandonment of the doubt and scepticism he cultivated in his work. He also had reason to be careful. The Parisian academic scene was intensely polarised, a war zone of ‘camps, strategic alliances, manoeuvres of encirclement and exclusion’, in Derrida’s words. Teaching at the Ecole Normale in the late 1960s, he refused to join any of the various groupuscules, at the risk of raising suspicions that he was secretly a Maoist, a Stalinist or, worse, an idealist reactionary. He remained loyal to Althusser, his old caïman, during his frequent breakdowns, and did everything in his power to ensure that Althusser received fair legal treatment and medical attention after he strangled his wife in 1980, but he loathed the ‘intellectual terrorism’ of Althusser’s Maoist acolytes, who goaded him to declare his support for the Cultural Revolution. When Lacan heard that Derrida was acquiring a following among Lacanians for his writings on Freud, he told him: ‘You can’t bear my already having said what you want to say.’ Lacan later made a feeble attempt to apologise, taking ‘Derrida’s hand warmly in his oily palms’, in Peeters’s words, and sending him a copy of his Ecrits, only to betray him later by revealing a confidence in one of his lectures. Derrida never forgave him.

Not that Derrida shied away from intellectual battle. ‘Parricide is philosophy’s theatrical fiction,’ he wrote, and he showed himself to be a ruthless practitioner. The subject of his first major paper, delivered in 1963 and reprinted in Writing and Difference, was his former professor, Foucault, who’d become a star after the publication of Madness and Civilisation. After introducing himself as ‘an admiring and grateful disciple’, Derrida fastened on a passage in Descartes that he claimed Foucault had misread – a fatal error, he said, since ‘Foucault’s entire project can be pinpointed in these few allusive and somewhat enigmatic pages.’ The ‘maddest aspect of his project’, he went on, was Foucault’s attempt to ‘let madness speak for itself,’ something it could not possibly do in the imperial language of reason. (In the lecture, Derrida drew a suggestive comparison with the ‘anti-colonial revolution’, which ‘can only liberate itself from factual Europe or the empirical West’ by adopting the West’s ‘values, language, sciences, techniques and weapons’.) Foucault was so stunned by this piece of oneupmanship that he thanked Derrida: ‘Only the blind will find your critique severe.’ (He would have his revenge years later, belittling deconstruction as a ‘piece of petty pedagogy’.) Foucault was not the only father to be slain: in a lengthy critique of Tristes Tropiques, Derrida portrayed Lévi-Strauss as a sentimental Rousseauian, keen to protect speech-based tribes from the corruptions of literate societies. ‘Aren’t you playing a philosophical farce by scrutinising my texts with a care that would be more justified if they had been written by Spinoza, Descartes or Kant?’ Lévi-Strauss asked, in a testy letter to Cahiers pour l’analyse, the Marxist-Lacanian journal where Derrida’s essay first appeared.

The accusation that he was a prankster would trail Derrida for years, but he persisted: the distinctions between philosophy and ‘non-philosophy’, between seriousness and frivolity, even between sense and nonsense, were precisely the kinds of binary opposition he wanted to collapse. His wildest book, Glas (1974), was a hypertext avant la lettre featuring two columns of text: on the left, an essay on Hegel’s family; on the right, a breathless, relentlessly punning homage to his friend Jean Genet, dilating on his treatment of flowers, crime and hard-ons. The objective was to produce ‘a contamination of a great philosophical discourse by a literary text that is reputedly scandalous’. (It was also to challenge père Sartre, author of the massive Genet portrait Saint Genet.) Glas seems to have left Genet, the contaminating agent, at a loss for words, as it did most readers.

Derrida’s closest intellectual comrade in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the writer and editor Philippe Sollers, who published a number of Derrida’s early essays in Tel Quel. But the friendship soured. Sollers wanted Tel Quel to become the cultural journal of the French Communist Party (PCF) and enforced strict obedience to the Moscow line. At a dinner with the Derridas, one telquelian launched into a passionate defence of the Soviet invasion of Prague, where Marguerite’s relatives lived. It did not go down well. Sollers was also worried that Derrida’s reputation might eclipse his own, suspecting that Derrida’s essay in praise of his novel, Numbers, was a covert ‘attempt at appropriation’. In 1967 Sollers had secretly married the Bulgarian literary theorist Julia Kristeva, whose career he was also keen to promote over Derrida’s. Rebuffed in their efforts to capture the cultural apparatus of the PCF, in the early 1970s Sollers and Kristeva converted to Maoism. This led to a deepening estrangement from Derrida, whose friend Lucien Bianco, a distinguished Sinologist, had disabused him of any illusions about revolutionary China. When Derrida gave an interview to La Nouvelle Critique, a PCF literary journal, Sollers and Kristeva protested by ‘boycotting’ a dinner in his honour. Derrida’s Tel Quel years were over. Years later, in her novel The Samurai, Kristeva would mockingly depict Derrida as Saïda, founder of ‘condestruction theory’, a man who was so attractive to American feminists that they ‘all became “condestructivists”’.

It’s no wonder that Derrida considered the Paris scene ‘asphyxiating’. Although widely seen as a leader of la pensée ’68, he was out of step with his milieu; he was not so much a radical as a tortured left-liberal who still viewed politics through the prism of Algeria. He also had a strong distaste for the public prises de position by which French intellectuals transformed themselves into celebrities. While Deleuze, Foucault and Bourdieu made interventions in the press on everything from the state of prisons to the Iranian revolution, Derrida kept his distance from politics in the 1970s and much of the 1980s. When the Nouveaux Philosophes, led by Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann, began to preen themselves on television, accusing philosophers of Derrida’s generation of failing to join the great struggle against Soviet totalitarianism, Deleuze retaliated in a withering interview. Derrida thought that some ‘clearly demarcated silences’ would be more effective, although he did get into a fist-fight with Lévy.

Derrida’s main cause in the 1970s and early 1980s was defending the teaching of philosophy in lycées against the reforms proposed by Giscard d’Estaing’s minister of education, René Haby. He founded the Greph (Groupe de Recherches sur l’Enseignement Philosophique) and, according to one colleague, ‘never drew back from the most humdrum tasks’. Haby’s reform was shelved, and when Mitterrand came to power, Derrida had friends in the administration, including the president’s adviser Régis Debray, a former student at the Ecole Normale. These connections soon came in handy: in December 1981, Derrida undertook his most daring political mission, a trip to Prague to help Czech dissidents. As he was about to leave for Paris, he was arrested and drugs were planted in his luggage; he was interrogated for six hours and thrown into a dark cell. (‘So, prison, did you discover how it smells?’ Genet asked him.) The Mitterrand administration intervened and he was released to great fanfare, his photograph appearing in the press for the first time: a form of exposure Derrida found especially humiliating, since he had long refused to have his picture taken.

This terrifying night in Prague made him feel vulnerable, and reopened the wound of his expulsion from school. His failure to receive a major appointment in France – in spite of the efforts of Paul Ricoeur at the University of Paris Nanterre and Bourdieu at the Collège de France – increased his sense of rejection. Though he began teaching at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, he was happiest lecturing in the US: first at Johns Hopkins, then at Yale with Paul de Man, and finally at Irvine and NYU. Thanks not least to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s 1976 translation of Of Grammatology, he had become a star in the American academy. His style of reading was widely, if not always convincingly imitated: professors of comparative literature hunted down the aporias of 19th-century novels; students who hadn’t read Husserl or Hegel armed themselves for war against the metaphysics of presence. Exiled from its roots in philosophy, deconstruction would turn into an all-purpose tool for anyone attacking racial and sexual ‘essentialisms’: feminists, postcolonialists, queer theorists, transgender activists. The spread of deconstruction in the New World seemed limitless; ‘America is deconstruction,’ Derrida joked. It reached – or, as Derrida might have said, ‘contaminated’ – everything from aesthetics to theology, from history to anthropology, and did much to open ‘non-philosophy’ to philosophy. Only analytic philosophy – whose opposition Derrida preferred to call ‘resistance’, as if it were a Freudian reaction-formation – remained impermeable.

The experience in Prague of being pressured to confess and made to feel guilty converged with his growing obsession with what he called the question of the secret. ‘If a right to a secret is not maintained,’ he said, ‘we are in a totalitarian space.’ His own biggest secret was his long relationship with the philosopher Sylviane Agacinski, which began in the early 1970s. Marguerite was aware of the relationship, as she was of Derrida’s many affairs, but he didn’t want anyone else to know, above all his sons. (Peeters speculates that the death of his brother led him to be an extremely protective father – a ‘Jewish mother’, in the words of a family friend.) Agacinski’s first book was published in a series Derrida edited for Flammarion, and she was the programme director of the International College of Philosophy, which Derrida headed. When Derrida wrote The Post Card (1980), with its suggestive envois to an unnamed lover, his 17-year-old son, Pierre, was so upset by the book’s ‘disguised confidences’ that he stopped reading his father’s work, moved in with an Israeli-American protegé of Derrida’s, Avital Ronell, and changed his last name. The name Derrida, he said, ‘wasn’t really mine’ – an act of filial repudiation that Derrida wrestled with in his short book Passions.

In 1984, Agacinski got pregnant and insisted on having the child against Derrida’s wishes. The affair ended there. (‘To the devil with the child, the only thing we ever will have discussed, the child, the child, the child,’ he had written in The Post Card.) Derrida acknowledged that he was the father two years later, at Marguerite’s urging, but he had no contact with his son Daniel, who was raised by Agacinski, who eventually married the Socialist politician Lionel Jospin. The story was revealed in the press when Jospin ran for president in 2002, an episode Derrida found so unbearable that he told an interviewer he wasn’t in the mood to vote. When Jospin came third behind Chirac and Le Pen in the first round of the election, Agacinski broke her long silence. ‘So it’s a question of mood, yet again!’ she wrote. ‘I hadn’t thought it could play such a decisive role on election day. Let’s hope at least that the philosopher will be in a better mood for the second round.’ Once Jospin became prime minister, she tore into Derrida’s call for ‘unconditional hospitality’ for illegal immigrants, a swipe at her husband’s policies: ‘There is nothing more conditional than hospitality. The unconditional, in general, answers the longing of beautiful souls for the absolute and the pure … But it gives up the attempt to think through reality as it is.’

Much more damaging to Derrida was the revelation by a young Flemish scholar in 1987 that his friend Paul de Man, who had died four years earlier, had written more than a hundred articles during the war for the pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper Le Soir. In one article, de Man had reassured his readers that, contrary to the warnings of vulgar anti-semites, European literature had not been contaminated by Jews (enjuivée); in another, he contemplated with apparent equanimity the eventual disappearance of Jews from Europe. The revelations weren’t just a personal blow to Derrida; they were a threat to his intellectual project. This wasn’t the first time deconstruction had been accused of being soft on Nazism. Victor Farias’s devastating study had shown that Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies were far deeper than had been realised – and less easily disentangled from his work – and put deconstruction in an uncomfortable position. Derrida was not uncritical of Heidegger: his insistence that ‘you can think only in the language of the other,’ a notion he borrowed from Emmanuel Levinas, was an implicit critique of Heidegger’s belief that ‘you can think only in your language, your own language.’ But deconstruction also owed a lot to Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics, and Derrida was prickly when critics put it to him that Heidegger’s thought might be tainted by his Nazism.

The de Man affair hit still closer to home. Out of a ferocious sense of loyalty – and a fear that guilt by association with Nazism might jeopardise deconstruction – Derrida gave no quarter to de Man’s critics. His friend’s ‘declared and underscored intention’, he argued in a long essay as fanciful as it was troubled, was to criticise vulgar anti-semitism, ‘but to scoff at vulgar anti-semitism, is that also to scoff at or mock the vulgarity of anti-semitism?’ De Man, he implied, was a deconstructive partisan fighter, using the language of Nazism to subvert it. He defended de Man’s silence after the war, imagining – in the absence of any textual ‘traces’ – that he had been tortured by the memory of what he’d done. To have apologised would have been pious, at best: it was nobler for de Man to keep his secret and suffer quietly. Derrida’s opponents pounced on the essay: one American critic claimed that deconstruction was ‘a vast amnesty project for the politics of collaboration during World War Two’. That was unfair. But Derrida’s inability to come clean about de Man – and his refusal to brook dissent among his followers – carried deconstruction to an impasse. ‘The whole affair was a disaster,’ Avital Ronell told Peeters. ‘In certain ways, we never got over it.’

Derrida was unable to condemn his friend’s behaviour because he was less concerned about de Man’s war than his own. The attack on de Man struck him as the latest in a series of malicious attacks on deconstruction. He had reason to feel that he was fighting on all fronts: against the Nouveaux Philosophes; against Anglo-American analytic philosophers who considered him a charlatan; against Jürgen Habermas and his followers in Germany, who denounced deconstruction for what they saw as its Heideggerian irrationalism. Derrida, who had refused to join the communists and Maoists in Paris, was now leading a party of his own, and, publicly at least, he was as inflexible as any leader. He never expressed regret over his response to the de Man affair. But in his last two decades, he began to evolve into a different sort of thinker, a globally attuned ethicist, as if in response to the charges made by his adversaries. He spoke less of Heidegger than of Levinas and Walter Benjamin, whose radical Jewish messianism struck a chord with him. Deconstruction, he now claimed, had always been about justice, all the more so for having been silent about it. He continued to pun – deconstruction, in French, would be nothing without puns – but the Joycean mischief of works like Glas and The Post Card subsided, as new, more sombre themes emerged: responsibility to the other (a theme taken from Levinas), memory (‘the trace’), Islam and the West, democracy, globalisation and its discontents, and sovereignty. He began to write more explicitly about his Algerian-Jewish roots, as if he wanted the world to know who he was after years of hiding from view. In his autobiographical essay ‘Circumfession’, composed in 59 paragraphs, one for each year he had lived, Derrida remembered his own ritual circumcision and speculated that circumcision was ‘all I’ve ever talked about’. The roots of deconstruction lay in the ‘writing of the body’, in the writing that marked difference.

In Spectres of Marx (1993), Derrida delivered on an old promise to write about the founder of historical materialism. He took off from the first line in The Communist Manifesto, ‘A spectre is haunting Europe,’ portraying Marx as obsessed with ghosts: the inventor of what he called ‘hauntology’. With the collapse of communism, Marx himself had become a ghost, as an entire generation of French intellectuals, from Lévy and Glucksmann to Sollers and Kristeva, denounced him as fervently as they had once embraced him. Once again, Derrida was luxuriating in philosophy’s figurative language. Yet his denunciations of the new world order, and his insistence that the spectre of Marx would continue to haunt capitalism, revealed an old-fashioned moral outrage he might have once found embarrassing, even suspect. As well as taking up the cause of illegal immigrants, he condemned Israel’s occupation of Palestine (but also attacked the ‘anti-semitic propaganda that often – too often – tends, in the Arab world, to give renewed credit to the monstrous Protocols’), and called for a peaceful resolution of the civil war in Algeria. Long accused of being a radical critic of the West, Derrida revealed himself to be the conscientious social democrat that he probably always was: an advocate of a new Europe, open to ‘the other’, conscious of its ‘totalitarian, genocidal and colonialist crimes’, and willing to stand up to American hegemony. After 11 September 2001, he was reconciled with Habermas: Bush’s war on terror made them realise how much they had in common, whatever their disagreements about Heidegger. Like any leader, Derrida knew when to strike tactical alliances, and when to lower the volume: on a trip to China, where deconstruction was expanding its zone of influence, he agreed not to discuss the death penalty in his lectures.

Never one to turn down an invitation, he pursued an extraordinarily punishing travel schedule, delivering lectures across the world even after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in spring 2003. There was something compulsive about this, and in his final interview with Le Monde, he admitted that he had ‘never learned to live’. To learn to live, he explained, is to learn to die, and he could never resign himself to death. His greatest fear, he said, was that ‘a month after my death there will be nothing left. Nothing except what has been copyrighted and deposited in libraries.’ These were his beloved traces, which he hoped would outlive him. He died in October 2004, his last request, in defiance of Jewish tradition, that he not be buried too quickly. He wanted to give resurrection a chance.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 34 No. 23 · 6 December 2012

Adam Shatz refers to Lacan’s grasping ‘Derrida’s hand warmly in his oily palms’ and attributes the words to his biographer, Benôit Peeters (LRB, 22 November). Not quite: they’re straight from Elisabeth Roudinesco’s Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-85 (1990). It’s fortunate that, as Lacan once put it, ‘the symbolic belongs to everybody’ and therefore ‘plagiarism doesn’t exist.’

Neil Badmington
Cardiff University

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences