on 15 November 2012
Benoît Peeters' admirable biography of Jacques Derrida, ably translated by Andrew Brown, gives a balanced portrait of both Derrida the person and Derrida the thinker (if indeed these distinctions are allowable), and further, and most interestingly, of their interpenetration, brought about through negotiations with and positions taken on everything from the political situations of his native Algeria and, by proxy, France, to his inside/outside affiliation with the university system(s), both in Paris and globally. We discover herein Derrida's deep ties of friendship, notably his bond with Louis Althusser; his magnanimous and exhaustively thorough letter-writing talents; his affairs in love, and his taste for the secret (dealt with always respectfully); his ability to cause controversy in his writings, though this controversy seems to rise in pitch in correlation to others' readings, then misreadings, then not reading at all; his indefatigable compositional method and works' publishing histories; and the arc of the deconstructive methodology dealing, broadly, with Derrida's chosen thinkers from Husserl to Marx. Peeters is generous in his dealings with his subject, and his collocation of materials leaves us with a reading comparable to Derrida's own incomparable readings, in terms of its thoroughness and penetration à la lettre.
There is, of course, something deeply ironic, even paradoxical, about writing a biography of Derrida, reconstructing the man from the texts, fragments and traces of narrative written by Derrida himself, and the people who knew him - texts which always have a belated status. Peeters, who was himself a postgraduate working under Barthes, is fully aware of this poignant incongruity and tackles it upfront in his introduction.
What he offers us here is an exhaustive and sympathetic biography of Derrida, the man as well as the philosopher, thinker and writer. He is respectful of Derrida's wife and avoids any kind of intrusive voyeurism when it comes to Derrida's relationships with women, while acknowledging the importance of women - as friends, colleagues, fellow intellectuals as well as lovers - in Derrida's life.
The movements of this book are, primarily, intellectual ones, focusing on the development of Derrida's thought, from his early education (some of his first school reports are unintentionally comic - who knew that Derrida was quite so bad at Latin unseens as a schoolboy!) through his publishing and academic career, to his untimely death in 2004.
In some ways, a biography of Derrida also has to be a `biography' of left-wing French political and intellectual thought from the second world war into the 21st century, and Peeters is attentive to the role Derrida plays here - from his early experiences of Vichy anti-Semitism in Algeria, to his nuanced responses to September 11.
Above all, for someone who has only dipped into Derrida in terms of his impact on critical theory and literary studies, this conveys a strong sense of his personality: affectionate, loving, sometimes fragile, always striving, never content to just accept, and very alive.
Derrida isn't always well served by translators (not always their fault) or interpreters, and his own writings are, necessarily and self-consciously, difficult as he struggles to articulate a philosophy of writing. This biography has left me eager to go back to Derrida's own texts - a fine outcome and one of which Peeters should be proud.
In his introduction Peeters explains that this book isn't about Derrida's philosophy as such, but his life. In justifying this approach he navigates the problems inherent in such an enterprise, and the introduction is probably the only part of the book where the author engages in a philosophical discussion.
What follows is a detailed chronological account of Derrida's life in 32 chapters and 50 pages of notes (629 pages in all). It is, of course, impossible to describe this life without referring to the philosophical debates, discussions and arguments which were part of this life. I'm not sure what a general reader, unfamiliar with the philosophies under discussion, will make of this - the sections on arguments with Foucault and Deleuze would perhaps make little sense unless the reader knows something of these other philosophers' writings.
But Peeters has done well to map out this life lived in a complex world of identities and politics in question and in flux throughout the 20th century Western world. He makes extensive use of Derrida's own personal archive, as well as interviews with many who knew or worked with Derrida.
If it's possible to write a biography of Derrida, Peeters has probably done it.
I loved this book. Benoit Peeters has chosen to write about one of the last century's most notoriously 'difficult' thinkers in a lucid, intelligent way that completely avoids the kind of opaque language that occasionally leaves you gasping in Derrida's own work.
This is a strategy that he consciously chose, after what sounds like a good deal of reflection, and for me at least it completely pays off. The book contains copious detail about Derrida's actual life (ie it is a proper biography, not just an 'intellectual' biography) and gives a wonderful flavour of Derrida's life as a young man ('Jackie', in fact).
Peeters has obviously been aided by having total access to many letters which are just infinitely readable, and he quotes big chunks on almost every page. This makes the book a real treat for lovers of Derrida's saner, more comprehensible moments. And some of it is as wonderfully unexpected as (knowing the thinker) you might expect: my favourite quote came on p.426:
"I'm more frightened of a hotel room without a television than a house without running water".
I loved how much this made me think about Derrida's relationship to culture and to his own childhood.
Wonderful book and much to be recommended.
French author Benoît Peeters is nothing if not versatile - his last book was a biography of Heregé (the creator of Tintin)! He is certainly not a professional philosopher and cannot be counted among Jacques Derrida's pupils or specialists of his work. So the fact that he was picked by Flammarion to write Derrida's biography, and given full (rare-as-hell) access Derrida's private archives by his widow, Marguerite Aucouturier, seems a bit odd.... but in point of fact they are good match: Peeters is an accomplished biographer and a heroic researcher. The fact that Peeters' biog. takes account of the archives is really important because Derrida saved pretty much everything he wrote: eighty books, diaries, letters, poems, journals... mere scraps: these are put on an equal footing by Peeters, whose research also took in interviews with a hundred of Derrida's friends and associates. The result is a big, fat, comprehensive biography in which topics of intellectual difficulty are dissected sufficiently patiently that one doesn't have to be a true Derridean to get any payoff. But it's a cerebral step up from Tintin, admittedly!
on 9 February 2013
I've been an avid follower of Derrida and his work, from my time studying philosophy at university through attending his lectures in the years shortly before his passing. I remember in particular his sense of humour, he told a fabulous joke about how ironic it was that French philosophy has always suffered from a German occupation :-) This is an impressive volume, which will appeal to those with a similar love of the man who was an enigma, but still managed to straddle diverse fields of expertise whilst still being the closest thing to a celebrity that modern philosophy has ever seen. This is a detailed and thorough text, covering the life of Derrida the man, his work and his outstanding legacy. Heartily recommended.
A very substantial book that gradually engages the reader. It is accessible for a general reader like myself, although I did have to look up several terms and do some homework to feel I understood some of the concepts; however, it is enjoyable and informative about this influential and interesting man and it was worth the tussle with the topics at times.
on 15 January 2013
Amazing insights into life of the most influential late-twentieth century western philosopher. While he would have scorned the reading of a texts in terms of a life I found it most enlightening and entertaining, particularly the photo of his famil re-enacting a famous painting: bonkers!