I read biographies to explore another personality through stories. The stories are not always true and are often subject to revision. A recent reading about the Duke of Wellington suggested that he never said his most famous quote, “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” and that the statement was attributed to him as one more Victorian nod to the innate superiority of the English imperial education.
My half-French friend reacted with disgust when I told him I just finished a 500 page biography of the Algerian French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Considered one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Derrida is second to Jean Paul Sartre (the father of existentialism) as the greatest modern French philosophers, though his disciples will characterize him as post-modern, and other philosophers in the French academy are still angry at him.
I did not ask why my friend hated Derrida (he added that he also despised Satre) because I’ve learned from the current American political, cultural and economic divisions that the reasons someone hates a person, place, thing, ideology, etc. are not as important as the fact of the hatred itself: our current passion for passionate dislike has raised the talent for loathing to one more act of self and group esteem. It now defines us (or has the potential to do so, if we permit it) just as much as our ability to love, like, appreciate and nurture.
So I tried to maintain whatever sociability I had with him and shared with him some things I read about Derrida that I did not admire.
Derrida, though happily married with two children, was known as “the seducer” by many of his female students and colleagues. He had a passionate affair that may have inspired one of his autobiographical writings. The affair resulted in a child. Derrida refused to raise the boy and eventually ended any social and professional contact with the mother, though he wrote a philosophical discourse on the ironies and contractions existing in the meanings of paternity and fatherhood. Though most disciples in Derrida’s circle knew of the child, they did not talk about him, perhaps because of another Derrida discourse on the paradoxical necessity of secrets. The mother eventually married a man who knew of the child’s relation to Derrida. The husband entered politics and became Prime Minister of France. When he ran for the office of President, the newspapers publicized the paternity of his son. Derrida found himself embarrassed, to say the least.
Derrida permitted one of his female disciples to have an affair with his sixteen-year-old son.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Derrida claimed publicly, without offering any specific evidence, that the attacks were the direct result of American and Israeli policies directed against Palestinians and the Arab world. Though Derrida was born a Jew in Algeria when it was a French colony, and was the target of anti-Semitism in Algeria and in France, he found his Jewish heritage problematic, especially when he married outside his faith. He became friendly with Palestinians when he lectured in Israeli and joined and Jean Genet, the playwright and novelist, and Jean Paul Sartre, in advocating for them. Having visited Israel many times and studied the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as well as the events and personalities surrounding the 9/11 attacks, I find that Derrida’s analysis ignores Bin Laden’s personal grudge against the United States and his urge to establish himself as a revolutionary leader.
Derrida lectured for hours without a break, speaking mostly about himself, on seemingly arbitrary, if not downright tedious topics. His disciples hung on every word. Others found this infuriating. Derrida was proud of his stamina and once lectured for 12 hours in a single day straight–with a break or two. I’ve lectured for more than an hour and I’ve sat through lectures that have lasted longer than three hours. I don’t care if you’re the world’s greatest comedian, the most interesting person ever, the holder of fifteen degrees and the Noble Prize–going on for more than an hour is just too much.
My friend did not reveal what he hated about Derrida. Instead he advised me to read a book by a philosopher he liked: Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I recommended David Hume to him, and we left it at that.
What I didn’t mention was what I admired about Derrida.
Deconstruction, as a technique for textual analysis, really helps expose hidden biases and subtle cruelties.
He endured the hatred and vilification, and then the jealousy of the French philosophical establishment, and kept his personal squabbles private.
He showed how speech is not the higher or purer form of communication compared to writing. Writing has its own mysteries, complexities and charm.
He enjoyed puns as both jokes and tools for philosophical inquiry. He believed that “play” was more than just amusement: it was a way of arriving at unique points of view and new meanings.
He was a tireless teacher on the international circuit, eventually establishing visiting professorships at Yale, New York University and the University of California at Irvine.
He wrote many books, commentaries and lectures that are nearly impenetrable and almost impossible to translate adequately. This was done deliberately in an effort to question ideas, and ideologies, about truth, authenticity, meaning and identity.
He got some of his ideas, as I still do, while indulging in physical activity, such as swimming or running.
He savored that dumbfounded moment you get when, instead of arriving at the truth, you find yourself in an unsolvable paradox. He called this “aporia,” the Greek word for the moment when you are flummoxed and begin to doubt, or question what you assumed you knew.
He began each writing session by asking, “Why write?” I don’t know if he found an answer, but he let the writing happen.
He was brave enough to endure the bad reviews, insults and petty nastiness of his peers, and, instead, honored his writing, and those of others who, philosophers or not, believed putting words on a page worthwhile and necessary.