'Someone like me - an old prof.'

Benoît Peeters, trans. Andrew Brown, Derrida: A Biography

Polity, 700pp, £25.00, ISBN 9780745656151

reviewed by Marc Farrant

There is something inherently strange, peculiar even, about the 'auto' in 'autobiography'. On the one hand, it implies the automatisation of the self, that one would act autonomously, as oneself, in the writing of oneself (from the Greek autos, 'self'). On the other hand, this action or acting-out would seem to take place automatically, im-mediately, without the mediation of others but also without the mediation of the self; since any act that is purely autonomous, purely an act of the self in a totally unmediated form, cannot be chosen and cannot be willed - any such process denies the very 'auto' of the self just as it embodies this very 'auto'(nomy). As with Walter Benjamin's automaton in 'On the Concept of History', we are always subject to the mediation of 'a little hunchback' (an expert chess player...) that inhabits the self as the self, the other within.

Of course, Derrida was not the only thinker to insist that any notion of an indivisible self is utterly fallacious. But deconstruction has, more consistently than any other strand of modern philosophy, emphasised the necessity of mediation, bearing out Derrida’s dictum il n’y a pas de hors-texte (‘nothing is outside the text’). However, 'life-writing' (bio-graphy) in general tends to be primarily oriented towards death; about those that have died, but also inevitably those that will. As Peeters observes, ‘there are biographies only of the dead.’ The narrative movement towards death occupies the formal heart of the genre so trenchantly that the construction of the self (one's own or another) is so radically displaced that the life ceases to live; it becomes crystallised, formalised in a state of nature. History is sacrificed, as Benjamin might have it, in the name of (a deathly) progress.

Benoît Peeters' poignant Derrida: A Biograghy is - evidently - not an autobiography, yet it is a piece of writing that draws upon Derrida's own auto-biographies; on a life of work that depicts the life as work, as a work in progress, of a life in writing as writing (not to mention Peeters' unprecedented access to Derrida's personal letters and other writings). Therefore, that the negotiation with life itself, as a conceptual philosophical notion, is inherently bound up with Derrida's own life - the site of which is seen as a 'divisible borderline', that which traverses two 'bodies', man and corpus - is more than just an egotistical (French) proclivity for exposure; for Derrida it was a necessity. The intersection of the life of the man with the negotiation of philosophical investigations is often taken to be the locus of Derrida's obscurantist literary prolixity. Indeed, the complex relationship between literature and philosophy, for Derrida, is a recurrent theme in the biography, and the struggle between the two, in Derrida's adolescence (which, as he states, ‘lasted until I was thirty-two’), makes for fascinating reading.

Enormous consequences for the legacy or ongoing understanding of deconstruction can be drawn from the insight that Derrida's very life is at stake in the work, and that this is encapsulated in his ever-present engagement with literature. Peeters vividly relates how Derrida's early interests stemmed from reading the 'life-writing' of Rousseau and Nietzsche, and how, in a letter to Foucault from 1963, Derrida declares the need to undertake ‘an essential task ... a type of philosophical writing in which I can say “I”’. Forged in the tumultuous fires of 1960s French academia, this type of philosophical writing (regardless of whether or not we call it deconstruction) is, perhaps, contrary to popular opinion, just as radically disruptive of disciplinary boundaries today as it was during the period of its conception. Such a writing remains outside the disciplinarily defined fields of philosophy and literature, just as it did at the time; the veritable difference is the lack of historical urgency.

Nevertheless, Derrida's work cannot help but disturb the presuppositions of disciplinary boundaries, of genres and the concept of genre itself - that of biography included. Thus, in the introduction, Peeters quotes Geoffrey Bennington, and in particular the latter's envisaging of a Derridean biographical writing, ‘multiple, layered but not hierarchised, fractal’, in the face of the impossibility of writing any form of traditional biography; the genre ‘of complacent and recuperative writing’. Thankfully, Peeters does not attempt to perform such an operation; his faithfulness to the subject is to the subject of the man, not the subject of deconstruction, and although this inevitably smacks of an arbitrary and conciliatory 'strategic essentialism', as Peeters says, ‘mimicry, in this respect and in many others, does not seem the best way of serving him today.’

Having dealt with the possibility of even attempting to write such a thing as 'The life of Jacques Derrida', now the question arises: why? As Gilles Deleuze once glibly asserted: ‘the lives of philosophers are rarely interesting.’ Luckily, there seems to be ample evidence, in Derrida's case, to the contrary. From a troubled youth in the Algeria of the 1930s and 1940s (the product of which is witnessed in numerous and intensely varied correspondences with friends and future colleagues), to grappling with the exhaustingly arduous French education system of seemingly endless exams (repeatedly throwing the young philosopher into bouts of nervous depression and anxiety), and to establishing himself as one of France's leading philosophers in what now looks like a 'golden age' of European philosophy, one thing remains constant: Derrida's commitment to (and dependency on) his colleagues and friends, a commitment which Peeters unearths in a tale of ceaseless dialogues and continual travelling (as Catherine Malabou declares in her enormously rich Counterpath: Travelling with Jacques Derrida, ‘he is without doubt the most world-travelled of all philosophers’).

One event in particular stands out, constituting perhaps one of the greatest ironic events of the 20th century (less Alanis Morissette and more Franz Kafka - quite literally). Between Christmas and New Year 1982, Derrida set off for Prague to visit and give a talk to a few clandestine students associated with the Jan Hus Foundation, of which he was a member. Since the Prague spring in 1968, the situation in Czechoslovakia had grown increasingly difficult, particularly so given the normalisation process of President Gustáv Husák, aligning the country ever closer with the USSR. Derrida had noticed himself being followed as soon as he arrived; upon getting up the next day and leaving the hotel - ‘I get into the metro compartment, he was still there, he gets in next to me ... and at that point I say to myself: I need to shake him off. So I summoned up my knowledge of novels and psychology, I tried to remember all the techniques of the genre.’ The talk goes ahead, on the subject of Descartes and his relation to language, and then Derrida leaves. While arriving at the airport, however, the pantomime begins. At baggage control Derrida is pushed to one side, a sniffer dog is called for, and tucked in the grey lining of his bag are revealed four suspicious looking packages. Derrida is immediately arrested for drug-trafficking, and spends 24 hours incarcerated preceded by an eight-hour interrogation; ‘the prosecutor, the police chief, the translator, and the lawyer assigned to me knew very well why this trap had been set, they knew that the others knew ... and conducted the whole comedy with an unshakable complicity.’ Indeed, the lawyer's advice was to imagine it all as a 'literary experience' - ‘and no doubt it was when I went to visit Kafka's grave that they took care of my valise in the hotel.’

Derrida's later years, despite his trivialisation of this event, would be marked by its happening - often re-lived in dreams. His later years would also see a more sustained and rigorous engagement with questions of politics and ethics; the former had always left something to be desired for Derrida, ever since his run in with the 'intellectual terrorism' of those who surrounded Althusser at the École Normale Supérieure. Indeed, Derrida's later writings can be seen as a direct attempt to address those swathes of critics who had ardently and consistently proclaimed deconstruction's totally dysfunctional distance from historical 'reality'. Just as Derrida appears as the elusive philosopher-as-author figure in so many of the works ('Circumfession', 'The Post Card' etc.), these counter-positions (triggered by a large extent by the very manner of writing) obviously affected Derrida himself, who would never absolutely divorce his teachings from his own way of living (even if this meant that, as he said in a final interview, he ‘never learned to live’.

These various championed 'realities' were, however, always a step behind Derrida's incessant deconstructions of them; they were already part of an inheritance Derrida was constantly challenging. This questioning would always spill out, spill over, in excess of itself in the very inherited language that constitutes the 'question', as well as the interrogator, including Derrida himself (summed up eloquently in Monolingualism of the Other: ‘I have only one language; yet it is not mine.’) Reality (not that he would have used the word), was for Derrida, in whatever form, strictly unprogrammeable, undecidable, and had an uncanny ability to deconstruct itself: ‘“Come on, just between us, do you really believe, deep down, that someone like me - an intellectual, a philosopher, an old prof - is going to amuse himself by coming to Czechoslovakia to undertake some drug trafficking?” The commissar's response: “Yes, yes, exactly, we are used to it; it's people like you who do that, most often, well-known intellectuals, artists - look what happened to the Beatles in Japan.”’

The oscillation between ‘Jackie’ (in the former half of the book), ‘Derrida’ and ‘Jacques’ (the adopted forename) betrays an endearing personalisation in what is otherwise a relatively rigorous and historically mechanistic narrative. This overly methodical tone might be as a result of a fairly clinical, Spartan translation, in which case the book may be further assimilated into the 'Anglo-Saxon tradition' of what the Guardian’s Elizabeth Roudinesco terms, on the back cover, 'excellent biography'. Or in another sense, clear, vivid and to-the-point historical writing.

Thus, as an historical tool - potentially indispensable for Derrida scholars - it seems odd not to have included a full bibliographical chronology. This is a minor point given the gulf that lies between Peeters' work and Jason Powell's Jacques Derrida: A Biography (Continuum, 2006). The first line of Powell’s work reads: ‘Jacques Derrida was the most famous philosopher of his day, and also a great and original thinker,’ giving the impression of a sort of Kafkaesque epitaph (one can almost imagine Derrida reading these very lines on Kafka's tombstone as narcotics are smuggled into his bag). In comparison, Peeters’ biography is a masterwork, an incredible stepping-outside of a man who so vehemently drew others in; into mimicry, into doubt, into (self) questioning. The problem remains: what can one say about Derrida, man and corpus, that he might not always already have anticipated? Such a leap of faith is thus immediately vulnerable, but the intense clarity of the text, and the rich composition of a life lived, render as justly as possible (that is to say, with a sublime neutrality) a life behind Derrida's numerous, engaged and always challenging responses to his work - responses that were his work. A response that, in this case (and we are no doubt the worse for it), will remain forever silent.