Derrida: A Biography

Adam Shatz writes:

‘Anyone reading these notes without knowing me,’ Jacques Derrida wrote in his diary in 1976, ‘without having read and understood everything of what I’ve written elsewhere, would remain blind and deaf to them, while he would finally feel that he was understanding easily.’ If you think you can understand me by reading my diaries, he might have been warning future biographers, think again. Derrida worried that the diaries might one day be privileged over his philosophical writing or, worse, used as a way of ‘finally’ steering through the obstacles he had consciously placed between himself and his readers.Comprehension – particularly if acquired ‘easily’, a Derridean slur – was one of the illusions of ‘mastery’ that he set out to puncture. Language, for Derrida, is always saying more than we want it to say; it has a tendency to undermine itself, even to turn against itself; there is no final liberation into some utopia of clarity, transparency and understanding. Derrida, who died in 2004, never wrote a memoir; he claimed he’d been ‘denied narrative’, as if it were a cruel punishment. Yet he wrote constantly about himself, in what his biographer Benoît Peeters calls ‘memoirs that are not memoirs’. The first half of The Post Card (1980) is an epistolary novel composed of envois to an unnamed lover. His 1991 essay ‘Circumfession’, written in stream-of-consciousness as his mother lay dying, moves between reflections on circumcision, death and St Augustine, and an elegiac remembrance of his childhood. His real ambition, Peeters suggests, was to be a poet or novelist; towards the end of his life, he spoke less of his philosophical legacy than of his desire to leave ‘traces in the history of the French language’. By scattering his writing with clues and apparent confessions, he played a coy game of disclosure and concealment, inviting curiosity while refusing to show himself clearly. Still, his writings are a rich guide to the concerns that drove him: our longing for a reassuring ‘centre’ that could anchor thought; the West’s troubled relationship to its colonial ‘other’; the agonies of Jewish identity; trauma and mourning; the power of the secret.

(LRB 22 November 2012)

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