Derrida: A Biography
October 2012, Polity
This biography of Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) tells the story of a Jewish boy from Algiers, excluded from school at the age of twelve, who went on to become the most widely translated French philosopher in the world – a vulnerable, tormented man who, throughout his life, continued to see himself as unwelcome in the French university system. We are plunged into the different worlds in which Derrida lived and worked: pre-independence Algeria, the microcosm of the École Normale Supérieure, the cluster of structuralist thinkers, and the turbulent events of 1968 and after. We meet the remarkable series of leading writers and philosophers with whom Derrida struck up a friendship: Louis Althusser, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean Genet, and Hélène Cixous, among others. We also witness an equally long series of often brutal polemics fought over crucial issues with thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, John R. Searle, and Jürgen Habermas, as well as several controversies that went far beyond academia, the best known of which concerned Heidegger and Paul de Man. We follow a series of courageous political commitments in support of Nelson Mandela, illegal immigrants, and gay marriage. And we watch as a concept – deconstruction – takes wing and exerts an extraordinary influence way beyond the philosophical world, on literary studies, architecture, law, theology, feminism, queer theory, and postcolonial studies.
In writing this compelling and authoritative biography, Benoît Peeters talked to over a hundred individuals who knew and worked with Derrida. He is also the first person to make use of the huge personal archive built up by Derrida throughout his life and of his extensive correspondence. Peeters’ book gives us a new and deeper understanding of the man who will perhaps be seen as the major philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century.
PART I JACKIE 1930–1962
1 The Negus 1930–1942 9
2 Under the Sun of Algiers 1942–1949 19
3 The Walls of Louis-le-Grand 1949–1952 35
4 The École Normale Supérieure 1952–1956 59
5 A Year in America 1956–1957 80
6 The Soldier of Koléa 1957–1959 92
7 Melancholia in Le Mans 1959–1960 108
8 Towards Independence 1960–1962 113
PART II DERRIDA 1963–1983
1 From Husserl to Artaud 1963–1964 127
2 In the Shadow of Althusser 1963–1966 144
3 Writing Itself 1965–1966 155
4 A Lucky Year 1967 170
5 A Period of Withdrawal 1968 186
6 Uncomfortable Positions 1969–1971 207
7 Severed Ties 1972–1973 230
8 Glas 1973–1975 256
9 In Support of Philosophy 1973–1976 267
10 Another Life 1976–1977 288
11 From the Nouveaux Philosophes to the Estates General 1977–1979 298
12 Postcards and Proofs 1979–1981 308
13 Night in Prague 1981–1982 332
14 A New Hand of Cards 1982–1983 342
PART III JACQUES DERRIDA 1984–2004
1 The Territories of Deconstruction 1984–1986 355
2 From the Heidegger Aff air to the de Man Aff air 1987–1988 379
3 Living Memory 1988–1990 402
4 Portrait of the Philosopher at Sixty 417
5 At the Frontiers of the Institution 1991–1992 440
6 Of Deconstruction in America 451
7 Specters of Marx 1993–1995 462
8 The Derrida International 1996–1999 478
9 The Time of Dialogue 2000–2002 495
10 In Life and in Death 2003–2004 518
Winner of the Choice award for Outstanding Academic
'Exhaustive and exhilarating.'
'Lucid, intelligent and richly informative.'
Times Literary Supplement
'Peeters has ransacked the voluminous Derrida archives and interviewed scores of his friends and colleagues. The result is a marvellously compelling account, lucidly translated by Andrew Brown. The man who emerges from this portrait is an agonised soul with sudden outbreaks of gaiety, an astonishingly original thinker with more than a dash of vanity who nevertheless made himself fully available to the humblest student.'
Terry Eagleton, The Guardian
"Peeters' biography is unique in shaping Jacques Derrida's legacy in a way that a new generation would benefit from knowing."
'Peeters is not a Derridean, but his book has qualities Derrida might have appreciated, above all a supreme patience with intellectual difficulty and abstention from moral judgement. He has done a heroic amount of research, interviewing more than a hundred of Derrida's friends and associates. He also had the co-operation of Derrida's widow, Marguerite. But his principal source of information is Derrida's own writing ... Derrida saved everything he wrote: he regarded every scrap as a 'trace', an almost sacred emblem of survival - and all writing, from poetry to post-its, had philosophical implications. Peeters puts Derrida's professional writing and these traces on an equal footing, using the one to illuminate the other. We see his many sides: a loyal friend and irrepressible seducer; a critic of dogma who couldn't bring himself to admit his own errors; a man who loathed tribalism but was so thin-skinned and so in need of adoration that he ended up leading his own academic tribe.'
London Review of Books
'Peeters has cut through a lot of the myth and mystique surrounding Derrida. There is probably more illuminating information here - and correspondence - than has ever been made public before ... Peeters's Derrida is vulnerable, sensitive, prone to bouts of melancholia, neurotic, hypochondriac, and verging on suicidal. He is as tormented and torn as his prose. This is Derrida the poetic soul.'
'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) ... 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.'
‘In addressing a philosopher of the importance of Jacques Derrida, whose massive output – about 60 volumes, not including his as yet unpublished seminars – has been translated and debated the world over, Benoît Peeters has quite rightly chosen not the origins or content of the work itself, but the life of the man behind it. In short, he has written an excellent biography entirely in keeping with Anglo-Saxon traditions.’
Elisabeth Roudinesco, The Guardian
'Peeters’ biography humanizes the philosopher in a way that opens up his work in a new way, and most importantly, makes it accessible.'
Philosophy After Dark
'[Peeters] excels at evoking the huge energy and application of the world's most travelled philosopher. If you've ever given up on Derrida, this portrait of him as a lovable, thin-skinned and narcissistic outside in France who shot to fame in the United States should make you reconsider.'
'A real tour de force. Assimilating a vast amount of material – Derrida’s own voluminous publications, unpublished documents and correspondence, and conversations with a host of acquaintances – Benoît Peeters has produced a compelling narrative that sheds light on all aspects of Derrida’s remarkable career.'
Jonathan Culler, Cornell University