Letter From - Winter 2005

Paris: The Death of Derrida

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By Charles Trueheart


On the day Jacques Derrida was buried in a nondescript cemetery near his house outside Paris in Ris-Orangis, Le Monde lavished on its readers a ten-page supplement about the philosopher’s life and work. Such posthumous honors, reserved by American newspapers only for presidents, are not so unusual for the most influential newspaper in France; only a few weeks before, Le Monde had published an eight-page supplement on the late philosopher (and Derrida co-religionnaire) Michel Foucault to mark not his death but the anniversary of his death twenty years before.

Adorning the cover of the Derrida keepsake was an imposing full-page photograph of the father of deconstruction. Tanned, white-maned, high-cheekboned, open-shirted, he had movie-star looks to go with his extraordinary brain and gift of meta-gab. Inside the supplement, like interior shots of Graceland, were pictures of the dead philosopher’s glassed-in office in Ris-Orangis, his unprepossessing workstation, his ashtray spilling over with pipes. And surrounding them, all manner of tributes, exegeses, glossaries (“différance,” “grammatology,” “logocentrism”), timelines, explainers, sidebars: What was deconstruction? Philosophy as an act of resistance. A redoubtable friend of psychoanalysis. An endless interview entitled “I am at war with myself.” And, importantly, Histoire d’une success story, offering clues to why Derrida was more honored—and reviled, the other side of the honor coin—in the United States than in France.

The French have wrung their hands for years now about the creeping extinction of the public philosopher, a national trademark and hardy export for centuries, more lately rarefied and marginalized. You can imagine how the death of Derrida would only have underscored that lament.

There were some end-of-an-era reactions, and a good deal of nostalgia among those now in their fifties and sixties, for whom Derrida had been a touchstone. A professor friend, as he pulled well-worn, tightly annotated Derrida tomes from high shelves in his Paris apartment, described to me his youthful discovery of Derrida as “a conversion experience. It opened a new world. I wanted to reread everything, and read it differently.”

But, at least as I decoded the postmortem “text,” the way the French mourned Derrida was more like a quiet celebration of something very much alive. Far from elegiac, it was muscular testimony that no society honors the life of the mind the way this one does.

His death was to begin with, an affair of state. The monarch himself, President Jacques Chirac, paid homage —and angled to share credit for the “gift” of Derrida to humankind, as he certified the philosopher to be “one of the major figures of the intellectual life of our times . . . read, admired, translated, published, taught, and debated around the world.”

Although he could not have been known to more than a tiny minority even of French people, Derrida evidently was a cultural commodity, or a point of civic reference, sufficient to command comment from every French politician. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister of France at the moment and a man usually quoted on milk subsidies and union tantrums, cited Derrida’s “modesty and his desire to understand the Other.” Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris, commented on the “resolute modernism” of the departed philosopher, while Marie- George Buffet, the head of what survives of the French Communist Party, mourned “the last representative of that generation of philosophers who never stopped challenging the mainstream and tearing off its masks.”

Derrida might have enjoyed deconstructing these encomiums, but even he might have blushed at the company assigned to him by UNESCO in November. For its annual Philosophy Day talkfest, the UN’s ministry of culture formally honored as a group—apparently by accidental virtue of the years in which they died— Derrida (2004), Foucault (1984), Kant (1804), and Thomas Aquinas (1274). Under the circumstances, the frequent postmortem comparisons of Derrida—to Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud— seemed downright circumspect.

Derrida’s death was, for some, a license to be cranky on his behalf. Françoise Gaillard was one of the philosopher’s many friends, colleagues, and students who gathered to pay tribute to him on an asbestosplagued Jussieu campus of the University of Paris a few weeks after he died, and she plunged right in: “I am enraged that so many wreaths of rhetoric, wreaths of media ink, are being laid on his tomb by those who always ignored him or even pushed him out of the university,” said Gaillard, a prominent literary critic. Lest anyone think that Le Monde is the norm, she noted that on the evening in question, the principal television newscast in France, Le Journal de 20 heures, had devoted “five minutes and 25 seconds to a construction-crane collapse involving a little girl and three seconds to the death of the greatest philosopher in France.”

Rejection was a chronic theme in the homilies delivered for Derrida. The rejection of his childhood: born in French Algeria, Derrida had been turned out of school at the age of twelve by Vichy authorities because he was a Jew. The rejection of the academy: he was denied a full university professorship all his life. The rejection of his country: like Maurice Chevalier, Derrida had to wait for validation— stardom—abroad before he could command it at home.

In one of several “last” interviews that he gave to journalists who sought him out, Derrida acknowledged, or rationalized, his overseas celebrity (he also developed important followings in Japan and Latin America): “It seems to me that the French cultural and philosophical scene remains, despite a few exceptions, very reductive and provincial. It is also very negative, notably towards me,” he told Franz-Olivier Giesbert of the weekly Le Point.

When Giesbert asked, exaggerating somewhat, why “foreigners adore you and the French detest you,” the transcript shows “(Silence),” then: “It’s because I try to understand.” Is it jealousy on the part of your colleagues? “It’s a recurring and classic phenomenon. Most of the time, philosophers are less well read at home than abroad.”

Still, after his death, the French intellectual class could not ignore Internet-borne reminders that, outside France, Derrida was not just worshipped, he was also loathed—as a purveyor of nihilism, of relativism, of mendacity, of nonsense. The Times of London was not the only newspaper to write a satiric eulogy: “Can there be any certainty in the death of Jacques Derrida? The obituarists’ objective attempts to place his life in a finite context are, necessarily, subject to epistemic relativism, the idea that all such scientific theories are mere ‘narrations.’” Choleric voices on the American right were not soothed by Derrida’s disappearance, calling for a continuing struggle to thwart the designs of his academic spawn.

Particular umbrage was taken at the condescending tone of the page-one obituary in the New York Times, carried here via the International Herald Tribune (which, oddly, played the death on page three). The piece did not flinch from citing critical and contemptuous assessments of Derrida alongside respectful and fulsome ones. Gaillard reported with some pride to her audience at the Jussieu tribute that a letter of protest to the Times about this had garnered nearly (and, at this writing, well over) four thousand mostly American signatures. The Church of Derrida in the United States appears to be thriving.

During his life Derrida reluctantly accepted that his philosophy might go by the name of deconstruction even as he became exasperated by requests to define it—or by the very idea that it could sustain definition. The first thing he always said was that deconstruction was not destruction but rather (in one of scores of formulations) “being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentations of the language we use—and that is not destruction.”

Born in 1930, Derrida dominated and survived most of the unruly crowd of structuralists and poststructuralists—Lacan, Barthes, and Foucault were his elders—who turned the academic world upside down in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Derrida’s radical “rereadings” of literary texts, his challenge of assumptions the world might regard as immutable facts, outraged one generation of philosophers while inspiring another. His impact was cross-disciplinary, even tidal. Not just philosophy but linguistics, literature, anthropology, feminism, psychiatry, film . . . all were Derrida’s children. He had leased to a generation of scholars and activists an all-purpose language of rebellion, confrontation, subversion: “the possibility of doing ‘revolutionary’ work without falling into the rut of Marxism,” in the words of French journalist Christian Delacampagne. But the disciples’ “translations” of Derrida, as much as anything the man himself had to say, lent themselves to the ridicule and alarm of the professoriat and the political right during the culture wars that followed. Derrida scowled and cringed at times, but never disowned his followers; that would have been inconsistent as well as churlish.

Denis Lacorne and Maria Ruegg were young academics at the University of California, Irvine, a generation ago when it was a seedbed of Derrida’s influence in the United States. I asked them over dinner whether they thought Derrida had minded that his ideas were misappropriated in American universities and beyond. “He was not nearly as unhappy with misappropriations as his disciples were,” Lacorne observed. Such is the way of disciples. “What shows the fertility of his thought is that it’s been understood in so many different ways,” Ruegg added. “Isn’t that the sign of someone who had something interesting to say?”

Ruegg herself, speaking of radical readings of texts, argued then and argues now that Derrida was a deeply conservative thinker. Derrida might have agreed. Shortly before he died, he said that philosophy had been for him “the search for an ethos and a way of life.” Deconstruction, Derrida said, was “above all an act of respect and of love.”

One of the stories repeated about Derrida is that he never allowed himself to be photographed until 1979, when he was nearly fifty. By the time he died a quarter-century later he was less bashful, more loquacious, fully absorbed in his role, what he called his “responsibility,” as a public figure. It could go to his head. He once took the stage at an Ornette Coleman concert in Paris in 1997, and tried to improvise, like a jazz musician, with words instead of notes. He was booed off the stage, a moment that his friend Francis Marmande recalled as one of his deeper humiliations— rejection again.

In death he was praised for his discreet engagement in South Africa and eastern Europe (Françoise Gaillard contrasted him to unnamed French philosophers who “spend Christmas in Sarajevo or Afghanistan in front of television cameras”), as well as for his late-life pronouncements on such matters as the European Union (good) and “Bush, Cheney,Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld” (bad). I did not hear very much at all, inside France, about Derrida’s stout defense of his colleague Paul de Man in 1987 after disclosure that de Man had published anti-Semitic tirades in occupied Belgium during the war. That reluctance to criticize Derrida may be explained by the genteel omerta that prevails here, a half-century later, over who did what during those “difficult” times under the Nazi boot.

Out of responsibility or vanity, Derrida was prevailed upon in his last years to collaborate in the making of a documentary film about himself. After he died you could go see Derrida: The Movie almost any day in Paris; more than a hundred people showed up at the screening I took in at the MK2 Theater in the Beaubourg District—on a Monday morning at eleven o’clock.

The film, made by Kirby Dick and Derrida’s former student Amy Ziering Kofman, is extraordinarily humanizing and revealing, even if part of its charm lies in Derrida’s efforts to dodge pointed questions, elegantly hiding behind the scrim of his own metaphysic. (Note: Though he was married to a psychoanalyst, though he collaborated frequently with psychoanalysts, though he had a pronounced impact on psychoanalysis, Derrida was never himself psychoanalyzed, or so he says in the film. Apparently he couldn’t be bothered.)

At one point in the film, Kofman asks Derrida and his wife to talk about their courtship and marriage. After a few moments of halting remarks by each of them, Derrida turns to the camera and says that he simply will not discuss this subject. He declares it off limits. His wife, her eyelids lowered, shows solidarity with Derrida’s refusal. Later, Kofman asks him why he never writes about love, and Derrida’s discomfort is palpable on the screen. He mumbles something about “wanting to be loyal to someone, and realizing that the person is not the one you thought you were loving.”

In the last sequence, the filmmaker asks Derrida what he would like to see in a documentary about Aristotle or Heidegger. Without hesitation, Derrida says he would want to know about their sex lives—meaning, he quickly adds, their intimate lives, their private lives.

Some of the friends who attended the funeral of Jacques Derrida on October 12 wrote down the words the philosopher had prepared for his older son, Pierre, to read at his graveside: “I smile at you, I bless you, I love you, wherever I am.”

Charles Trueheart is director of the American Library in Paris and a contributing editor of The American Scholar.


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