It created a trip down memory lane, to read the Derrida biography. At first because I saw the rebelliousness of some of my generation in the 70ties as the echoes of the anti-traditionalist choices of the young Derrida and his likes around 1950. Reading the chapters up to the eigthies, I was accompanied by memories of my first boyfriend, who studied French literature at first, and then followed me into philosophy. I saw him reading, always (and me being annoyed by it) – the whole of Proust, but also many authors unknown to me, and figuring prominently in ‘Derrida’: Philippe Sollers, Jean Genet, and more. He wrote his master’s thesis on Derrida, and now I am certain that the name of Agacinski (Sylviane, the unofficial second woman in Derrida’s life between 1975 and 1984) was also mentioned in the conversations between his supervisor and him. I wasn’t interested in biographical stuff back then, though, ‘just’ in philosophy itself. The voyeuristic pleasure of discussing the sinful lives of ‘great men’, practised by some professors of the French Institute and their students, was hard to understand for me, having been raised in a very idealistic, almost monastic catholic atmosphere. Trained to always look beyond the human and the all too human towards the transcendent for which we were born into this world.
Then, reaching the eigthies in the book I remembered hearing of some events in the breaks between class as they took place – like Althusser having killed his wife and being put in a mental clinic. Someone making fun of it, that Marxism was not healthy. Then, in the nineties I found a reference to that one visit of Derrida to the Netherlands (I never knew it was only that one), where I was present: in 1997 he went to Tilburg. I remember not so much of what was said then and there. I remember several things that are confirmed in the biography, though, things that struck me: at first his healthy, vital presence. Brown skin, lively brown eyes, awake, a silvery grey suit which held an admirable middle between the dull and unsized suits of normal philosophers, and the overly tailored suits of Italian machos. It was just right. Then it struck me that he spoke a very understandably English – without the accent of those Frenchmen who seem unable to respect any other language than their own. And thirdly it was remarkable how open, serious, and clear he reacted to questions and criticisms brought forward by the Dutch philosophers present.
Reading the book I was disappointed too, as I feared I would be, as some of the natural halo of such a great philosophical writer was taken away. Benoît Peeters tried to picture Derrida as a normal human being. The book is no hagiography. Looking for what made Derrida so special is not Peeters’ aim. He shows how Derrida partook in all the petty fights for honour of philosophy professors, breaking up with friends who criticized him, staying publicly loyal to those who helped him, even if they were politically wrong. All for the building of the ’empire of deconstruction’ (my expression) – connecting globally, travelling endlessly, writing frantically, Derrida did everything for ‘changing everything about the way we think’. Peeters shows mercilessly, but without condamnation, the human all too human accompanying the road to success – the hurt friends, the painful love affairs, the wife who ‘took everything from him – from raising the children to finances’, the solely formally recognized extramarital son. Well, most people have comparable stuff in their lives, although talent and ambition add extra opportunities for them. Peeters shows the human successes as well, through the friendly words of his family, students and friends – his openness, his always giving time to students, his pleasant and humorous nature.
Focussing on the human, all too human, leaves a strange void in the book though. The frantic activity – Derrida wrote on average two books per year – is just described too, without judgment or attempt at explanation. The book is a fascinating overview of, mostly, Derrida’s public life, of all his writing projects and everything they brought with them. Peeters does a superb job connecting and explaining the content of all these projects. He does not touch however on the question of the source of this streaming fountain of words. It is not that I, as a reader, would want a psychological explanation of what he did (although that would be interesting too), but some questions asked about the anthropological aspect of the phenomenon Derrida the writer. One can highlight his ‘normality’, like Peeters does, but his writing, and the profoundness of much of it, is/was not normal. It was a miracle. And it always is a miracle how some people seem born with an urge to do or to make something that is so strong that it defies all possible odds. I do not mean to say it is something ‘supernatural’, but it is exceptional. I, as a reader, would have liked something to have been said about how this individual had to give himself to a writing which was almost compulsive. A writing that had prophetic qualities, always tapping in to the events of history, to the questions of politics and to justice to come. Perhaps it also had shamanistic qualities, helping to heal some of the wounds of the times, looking beyond time (‘our time is out of joint’).
Derrida himself wrote one of the most insightful pieces on Nelson Mandela. It conjures up the vision Mandela had for humanity, makes his politics and dedication understood. This is no hagiography either, but it might be judged to be somewhat ‘idealistic’ – taking the human being as a sign that directs towards ‘what is coming’ (democracy, justice). In Mandela’s life there were also painfully failed love relationships, children dealing with the consequences of having such a father, there were doubtful political decisions, and most likely there were hurt and disappointed friends. I learnt that my idealistic upbringing was wrong to pass over such stuff in its haste to see everywhere signs of the heavenly kindom to come. They are not things that don’t count. A son of another ‘great man’, Ken Wiwa (son of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and activist who was hanged in 1995) wrote a book about being in the orbit of such a life, dealing with the debris. Searching for reconciliation with his mostly absent, and now dead father, Wiwa shows how he succeeded, in the end, by returning to the letters his father sent him from prison, by visiting other children in the same position, mainly by letting his love grow. What I want to say is: it doesn’t help to pass the connection of greatness and littleness over – as if the facts of a life are just phenomena of nature. They are not, I think. They are answers to and effects of a calling, which can only be really appreciated if one, zen-like, meditates on the togetherness of a life’s seemingly contradictions. From beyond what at first sight seems good or bad, there may be an opening towards good and bad – what Derrida could have called, following Levinas, an ‘ethics before ethics’, which is neither human, nor transcendent(al). We know it only when those two (the human and the transcendent(al)) touch each other, creating fireworks anyhow.