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Book Review

Derrida - A Biography by Benoît Peeters

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Publisher: Polity Books, hardback

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“What if someone came along who changed not the way you think about everything, but everything about the way you think. “ So ran the somewhat pat and cheesy publicity line for a documentary film called Derrida which appeared in 2002, with music by Riyuchi Sakamoto, no less, who had scored Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, starring David Bowie.

Derrida told the story of the philosopher Jacues Derrida (1930-2004) who was raised in a Jewish family in Algeirs. The film took five years to make, as it followed the thinker and philosopher around the globe, from Paris to New York, California and South Africa. It recorded him at ease in his kitchen, and at the barbers. The film enjoyed more success than might be imagined for a documentary on a philosopher and was presented as an official selection at the Sundance Festival, and also at Locarno, Venice and Melbourne.

Until now, with the arrival of this fascinating 600-page biography, the film was probably the best insight available into the life of Jacques Derrida. As a young lad, he was excluded from school at the age of twelve. He wanted to be a professional footballer, like another French-Algerian philosopher, Albert Camus. Something of a boy racer, his driving licence was taken from him due to his antics with cars.

Yet Derrida went on to become the most widely translated French philosopher in the world. He made a courageous stand on behalf of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, and he campaigned tirelesssly on behalf of ilegal immigrants and gay marriage.

Peeters’ account does not analyse or delve more deeply than a biography should into Derrida as philosopher, it’s not that kind of work. So Derrida’s life is paramount, notably, his cheerless boarding school days, when he would succumb to fits of crying. His student days began inauspiciously too, although he would in time become a brilliant student. On the eve of a particular entrance exam some time before studies at the Sorbonne, he took amphetamines to deal with anxiety and sleepless nights.

Marriage to Marguerite Aucoutourier (born 1932) seems ultimately to have rescued him and given him some measure of domestic stability. Marguerite, a student of Russian, grew up in a Catholic family, daughter of a Czech mother and French father. She was the sister of a school-mate in Paris. The courtship began when Jackie - as he was known - began to be invited to her family home for lunch and to play bridge.

Excerpts from important letters and quotations, and, in one instance, a moving quote from graveside oration for an esteemed colleague punctuate Benoît Peeters' compelling narrative. A vivid picture of life in Algeirs is afforded, from the man himself. “I still have ten days to spend in this terribly paralysed country, “ he writes from the city in 1956, just before two time bombs would explode in the heart of the city, with many casualties. “Nothing happens, nothing, nothing that might indicate any political movement or the development of a situation. Just daily attacks, deaths to which you get used, and which people talk about as if they were just an unwelcome shower of rain.”

In terms of his creative legacy, Derrida is the man responsible for deconstruction, which as a concept has had a huge influence in literary studies, architecture, law, theology, and post colonial-studies. Before the philosopher died, aged 74, in October 2004, he expressed the wish that he buried outside the Jewish section of the graveyard at Ris-Orangis, so as not to be separated from Marguerite after her death and burial. No prayers were said, his eldest son Pierre read the epitaph which his father had written 34 years earlier. “Always prefer life and never stop affirming survival, “ Pierrre declaimed, as part of that epitaph. “I love you and I am smiling at you from wherever I am.”

Paddy Kehoe

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