Tag Archives: Nelson Mandela

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.


Reading so many contributions, these days, that attempt to interpret the life of Nelson Mandela – those which add to the pervasive inclination to see him as quasi superhuman, a saviour, and those which try to resist that inclination, looking more into historical detail – I was reminded of my mention of his turn towards reconciliation in a 2006 article on ‘decisive moments’. In it I contribute to the attempt to provide an alternative to the Kantian understanding of the moral agent as a free, rational being. This Kantian view has created well-known problems, most important of which is the impossibility to see real-life human beings, taken up in practical life with all its commitments, misunderstandings and emotions, as full fledged moral beings. In order to get a clear idea of free moral choice, Kant had asked his readers to abstract from all these aspects of human life, which left his autonomous agent a ghostly figure without any contact with real life.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, not so much in response to Kant as well as to Sartre, had argued in a 1982 article that free, ‘radical’ choices are impossible. To be really radical, a choice should take no reasons from the situation in which it is made, nor from the values that are already held by the person who makes it. This makes it a question of just throwing oneself to one side rather to another. This might be radical, it does not much resemble what we would call a choice in real life. Taylor has made the problem very clear, that a real choice needs to be grounded in a situation, and in the attempts of real persons to try to make sense of what they stand for and believe in. His article on free will does not, however, (and neither does his major 1989 study on The Sources of the Self) offer a solution to the problem. He states that a person, in order to be able to make moral choices, has to articulate his deepest values – but all the same he admits that the deeper these are, the more unclear, inchoate they appear to us.

Another, and more sensible, option offers Margaret Urban Walker, in her work Moral Understandings, where she investigates the question of integrity with respect to the phenomenon of fault lines in peoples lives – events or powers that steer us in directions that we did not foresee or choose, but that still ask of us to take a stand towards them. Here she uses narrative theory, which explains how we make sense, while interpreting the events of our lives, trying to make a whole of them. Integrity, she claims, is not the same as unflinching commitment to one’s ‘deepest’ values. It is the ability to make sense of changes, even radical ones, even of values. Here we touch on the phenomenon that many people called great – like many ordinary people – went through radical changes before showing their greatness. It even seems to be that their ability to make those changes and not lose their identity is a major aspect of their greatness. Thus it is that Mandela is glorified for his transformation from a militant activist to the inspirational figure of peace and reconciliation he became, as was in another context (for instance) the one called the Buddha for his leaving his home and his riches (including wife and child) for a life of roaming the land while preaching compassion. Or Jeanne d’Arc for giving up her life as a woman of her time in order to be able to go to battle like a man.

Behind these great changes lie complex events, things that influenced the lives of these persons in ways so intricate that they cannot be fully analyzed, even if one had superhuman knowledge of historical detail. Such events cannot be fully analyzed, as they form out of the interactions of the situation in which one lives, the feeling with which one tries to understand and react, a sense of the wider horizons of meaning in which one’s life unfolds, and that mysterious creative emptiness which one calls choosing. The moment that we choose, or, which is the same, that we know that a certain course in life is to be followed, we might not be aware of it. It might happen unnoticed, at a seemingly unimportant moment in our life. And then it may take years, or decades, to find or create the circumstances in which that choice can become real. It is like Youssou N’Dour sings in his well-known song So many Men: ‘I’m hiding so I can find myself, and some freedom’. Hiding in the desert, as some great prophets did before finding their voice, or in a prison cell, or just in a very ordinary life perhaps. We will never know where and when precisely decisive moments occur, although, in their obscurity, they make history.

Works I mentioned are:

Moral Understandings. A Feminist Study in Ethics, by Margaret Urban Walker, Oxford, 2007 (the second, revised, edition, the first is from 1998)

– ‘Responsibility for Self’ in G. Watson (ed.) Free Will, Oxford, 1982, and Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge (USA), 1989, both by Charles Taylor

– ‘Beslissende momenten. Uitgangspunten voor verandering’ in Joep Dohmen en Frits de Lange (red.) Moderne levens lopen niet vanzelf, Amsterdam, 2006, by myself

– ‘So many Men’ from the album Nothing’s in Vain (coono du réér), by Youssou N’Dour, 2002.

In all the images,messages, articles that were posted on the internet to honour the legacy of Nelson Mandela now that he has passed, one struck me, and I just finished reading it: a tribute by Jacques Derrida, written in 1986. At that time, Mandela had lived twenty years of his imprisonment, which was meant to be for life, and his future was yet uncertain. Derrida is to my view the philosopher who has up till now presented the profoundest understanding of time – of the interconnections of future and past, removing reflection from the center of the present towards which Heidegger had lead it in his attempt to capture the event of Western philosophical tradition. At the same time he has succeeded in questioning this notion of ‘the West’ as the locus of the articulation of universal human rights, of law as something universal.

It struck me as curious that Derrida, who, in his understanding of time re-interpreted Nietzsche’s notion of eternal return, somehow managed to write this profound farewell, or welcome (as these presuppose each other according to Derrida) to Mandela when the latter was still to live what many see as his greatest contribution to the world – helping the peaceful ending of the apartheid regime to become real. And that this investigation of the great ‘attorney/advocate’ floats to the surface almost ten years after the philosopher himself passed away or over. Its online accessible version on scribd had only a hundred views two months ago, and has a thousand at present. In it, Derrida provides a reading of the defense which Mandela gave to the court before his imprisonment, a text which, he states, re-institutes the law, i.e. justice, in front of those who represent ‘the law’, a law which had never been real since its institution. Of this text he asks: ‘Is it a testament? What has become of it in the past twenty years? What has history done, what will history do with it?’

A testament, Derrida writes, can be received as a memorizing of something lost forever, like, for example (and in this case) ‘the Christian West’, or as an invitation to join in the responsibility for the future.’ As the present was a situation of lawful unlawfulness, it would not have been proper (with regard to justice) to focus on that: justice demanded to remember the original inspiration of the law, which, at the moment Mandela gave testimony to it, became a call for a just future. Thus the past and the future concur. Here Derrida also asks the question whether this heritage of an original call for justice should be seen as bound to the history of ‘the West’ – a question which he does not answer. As for Mandela, his inspiration, according to his own text, springs from ‘admiration of the law’, as he learned it in its modern Western version. This admiration is again inspired and transformed by another admiration, that of the African past, about which young Mandela heard the elders speak. They spoke of ‘a classless society [in which] the land, then the means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor, and there was no exploitation of man by man.’ This latter admiration, Mandela admits, has joined with his reading of Marxist literature, to install in him the idea of what Derrida calls ‘revolutionary democracy’ – the idea of a democracy which does not legalize oppression of one group over another, but which has abandoned class and privilege.

Mandela spoke in his defense, over against the law which had ‘outlawed’ him, and thus asking for the law to be instituted finally. He did this out of admiration, admiration for the law, be it in the form of its formal articulation in the West, or of its seminal prefiguration in the African past, the past of the continent where those from whom all humans are said to originate lived. This past is said to have left behind ‘seeds’ – and what is a seed other than a testament – a testimony – laying itself bare to give fruit to what has been protected and kept in its inside from the past. Derrida plays, finally, with the double face of the genitive, as he does more often, referring to ‘the admiration of Mandela’: when we admire Mandela, which Derrida thinks is inescapable, we admire the reflection, in Mandela, of that which was admired by him: the law.

Derrida leaves his readers with a question, a question from the past (1986), which is still to be asked, also by us who worry about WhaM (What happens after Mandela) – not only in South Africa, but around the world. ‘Who is Nelson Mandela? We will never stop admiring him, him and his admiration. But we do not yet know whom to admire in him, the one who, in the past, will have been the captive of his admiration or the one who, in a future anterior, will always have been free (the freest man in the world, let us not say that lightly) for having had the patience of his admiration and having known, passionately, what he had to admire.’ The question, of course, has a rhetorical ring to it: it would help those who are left behind by this great man who passed, us, if we understood that he reflected what he had to admire, and which we can admire in him too.

Nelson Mandela just passed, and lived from 1915 untill 2013.

Jacques Derrida lived from 1930 untill 2004, and should be considered to be one of the most influential African philosophers, i.e. if we define one’s Africanness by the place of one’s birth.

I cited from Derrida’s article ‘The Laws of Reflection: Nelson Mandela, in Admiration’, which can be accessed here:

In so doing, I cited also from the text of Mandela’s defense from 1964. This text is readable in its entirety here: