(Auto)biography and Derrida I

Started reading Derrida, the biography by Benoît Peeters. Hesitantly at first, for I thought I would not need info on the life of the man whose work always challenges me. But won over when reading, on the first page that Derrida himself had said: ‘you must […] put philosophers’ biographies back in the picture, and the commitments, particularly political commitments, that they sign in their own names […].’ And on the second: ‘In his view, autobiographical writing was the genre, the one which had first given him a hankering to write, and never ceased to haunt him. Ever since his teens, he had been dreaming of a sort of immense journal of his life and thought, of an uninterrupted, polymorphous text […]’

So why, would I, a lover of (auto)biography, had hesitated to read his? I suppose out of some fear that when I would discover the ‘secrets’ behind his philosophical texts, they would become less cryptical and challenging. Like I always feared to write or even speak about the happiest childhood years I spent in a village along the banks of the river Maas. In both cases we deal with a source. A source of happiness, a source of thinking, a source of selfhood. It should not be dammed in, boxed in, written upon, for that might make it flow less freely. Recently, and now again, I discovered the self-deception in this line of thought. Good texts are porous, and leave the stream unhindered, only attract attention to it, like a beautiful bridge to a river.

There is more in the connection of Derrida and (auto)biography. When I read the words by his commentator Bennington, cited by Peeters on page 6, a chord of recognition was struck. Bennington wondered how to write on the life of the deconstructionist: ‘Is it possible to conceive of a multiple, layered but not hierarchised, fractal biography which would escape the totalising and teleological commitments which inhabit the genre from the start?’. Now I have to become autobiographical. It was in 2002 or 2003 that I first started reading the Vita by Victor Klemperer, about whom and which I have written before. What fascinated me was that Klemperer somehow did that – he kept to the traditional form of the autobiography, its chronology, its tropes, like trying to understand one’s parents to understand oneself – but all the same interrupting the totalizing narrator that he embodied, and sometimes interrupting the interruptor. He probably got the idea for this from the plays of Bertolt Brecht that he watched in the early German Democratic Republic. Thus he found the philosopher’s stone for writing a post-modern (auto)biography.

When reading Klemperer I knew: this is it! This is what I want to do when I am old. I am not so sure anymore now, but the idea of a ‘multiple, layered, not hierarchised, fractal’ biography has fascinated me from that time. Klemperer’s novelties were the deconstruction/verfremdung concerning the narrator’s voice, and at the same time the deconstruction/verfremdung concerning chronology. What I was trying to figure out was, how one could write separate lines of a life, going back and forth trough time, that related to different themes and important relations of the subject. For, like, telling the story of a person from the point of his work would be very different from telling it with a focus on his religious development, or his relation to his mother, his longtime friend, etcetera. A person can only be approached through the many faces (s)he shows. And these again change face through the process of interpretation – as the point of view of the narrator shifts according to the events and moods in the narrator’s life.

I never managed to solve the puzzle up till now, perhaps someone else has done it, or is doing it right now, and I don’t know of it. The writer of Derrida obviously abstained from it – for a reason that I like: not wanting to mimic a Derridian style, which ‘does not seem the best way of serving him today’. This is not only true for serving Derrida, but for holding on to something which was important to him, I think, as a lover of Nietzsche: that everyone should become her/his own. Doing just that, is the only way to understand the ‘posthumous friend’ (Peeters calls Derrida thus) a true thinker might become to me. As Nietzsche said in these famous verses:

Leg ich mich aus, so leg ich mich hinein:
Ich kann nicht selbst mein Interprete sein.
Doch wer nur steigt auf seiner eignen Bahn,
Trägt auch mein Bild zu hellerm Licht hinan.

Translated freely, this reads:

Interpreting myself, I project myself.That’s why I can’t interpret myself. But who climbs his own path, will also carry my image towards a brighter light.

Do these verses hold the secret to a post-totalizing (auto)biography? Pointing towards the inter-subjective and perspectivated character of understanding, they underline what first was understood falsely as the ‘death of the subject’ in postmodernity. The subject is not dead. It is not its own possession. It has no clear place it inhabits. It is an intersubject. In my 2005 book Return of Nature I explored the idea of the intersubject. An (auto)biography would also be a great place for such an exploration. While the impossibility of delineating and organizing a lived life in a final system of meaning shows how it (every individual life) overflows constantly in the lives of others, human and animal, in interaction with an inanimate environment too – and how the lives of these ‘externalia’ overflow at the same time in the life of the subject. The hero of a life’s story is also the one who suffers, from events and actions (s)he did not choose. The ‘deeds and works’ of ‘a great man’, as it used to be called, are only the chance instances where (s)he succeeded in reconstructing and redecorating fate to get a unique tasty personal flavor. A ‘Derrida’ flavor, or a ‘Klemperer’ flavor. Without such flavor, Derrida would admit to this, I think, we do not have general truth and universal history – we have nothing.

Citations are from Derrida by Benoît Peeters, first published in 2010, in English in 2013 by Polity Press.


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