I first met Jacques Derrida in 1982. I was a lowly graduate student in Yale’s Department of Comparative Literature, then a hotbed of deconstructive activity; he was the sun around which our intellectual universe revolved. Breezing in each spring for a series of seminars and lectures, with his impressive mane of white hair, he was an elusive yet all-pervasive presence. The fancy footwork in his infinitely nimble close readings of Heidegger and Spinoza left us scrambling to catch up.
The news of his death two weeks ago came as a shock. (“Abstruse Theorist Dies in Paris at 74,” read The New York Times, a front page headline unlikely to be repeated soon.) Derrida, who taught us that all binary oppositions were fallacies (spelling the word with a “ph” to stress its link to Western, phallogocentric thinking); that each opposing pair of ideas, when examined closely enough, contained the seeds of its own undoing; Derrida—whose writings were alive with traces and haunted with ghosts, who was “always already” (“toujours, déjà“) confounding the march of time itself—could he possibly, definitively, pass to the other side?
My second feeling was one of regret, for I was never a good enough student, and I had held myself apart from the orthodoxies surrounding him. Derrida’s lecture style (the primary means by which I came to know his work) was unlike any other, betraying a machine of thought so powerfully regulated according to its own logic that it seemed to me his students had but two choices—to acquiesce (i.e., to mimic his themes), or to stand outside and ponder. I opted for the latter, yet hearing the news of his death, I felt a lingering nostalgia for the family I belonged to but could never bring myself to join.
Derrida’s Jewishness was not something he wore on his finely cut sleeve in those days; for us, I’d say, it was part of his general Otherness, at one with his Continental savoir faire and the jarring impact of his thought. (Philosophers with a sense of style were rare in Puritan New England.) Jewish writers and thinkers such as Spinoza, Kafka, and Levinas were certainly stars in his intellectual firmament. But this was before he’d published his study of the poet Paul Celan (Shibboleth: For Paul Celan, 1986), who survived a Nazi forced labor camp and wrote of the Shoah in German. Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, the poet’s widow, an artist and my friend, told me in Paris when the book came out that she’d found it “too much Derrida.” If true, was that a failing or the mark of a great intellect? It seemed that everything he touched he transformed into himself.
It was also before he’d published Circonfession. Written in collaboration with Geoffrey Bennington, this anti-memoir of sorts is an extended meditation on the philosophical and linguistic implications of his own circumcision. We learn that his Hebrew name was Elie; that his Algerian-Jewish mother interrupted a hand of poker (a game she passionately loved) in order to give birth to him; that in his acculturated Sephardic family, they called Bar Mitzvahs “communions,” etc.
Several pages from Circonfession are inserted into the middle of author Hélène Cixous‘ curious tribute, Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint (2004), which finds traces of Derrida’s assimilated Franco-Algerian Jewishness—roots that Cixous shares, she tells us, apart from the circumcision—manifested in his writing. Acolytes may find this volume fascinating, like listening in on a conversation between two lovers, and others barely readable.
A far more user-friendly introduction to the man and his work is Derrida (2002), the documentary directed by Amy Ziering Kofman (a fellow student whom I knew in graduate school) and Kirby Dick, which returned to Manhattan’s Film Forum for a five-day, posthumous homage and is available on DVD. My affection for this film stems partly from its great charm and the elegance of its citations, and partly from the seriousness with which both its makers and subject approach an impossible project—a biographical essay that questions every naturalistic premise of both biography and documentary.
In it, Derrida speaks of experiencing anti-Semitism in wartime Algeria, then under the sway of the Vichy government. At the age of ten, he was expelled from school along with other Jewish students and teachers. The Jewish community formed new schools for its children; he attended, but felt ill at ease in that closed world, remaining doubly an outsider.
The documentary passes over in silence the scandal that erupted in 1987 at the revelation of anti-Semitic articles published by the late Paul de Man, a noted teacher and Derrida’s close colleague at Yale, when he was a young man in wartime Belgium—the repressed of history returning with a vengeance to wreak havoc on Deconstruction’s reputation.
The last time I saw Jacques Derrida was following a lecture at New York University, where he was a visiting professor in the 1990s. He greeted me with the warmth and delicacy that marked his relationships with former students. By then, I was no longer teaching; he seemed surprised. “So you’ve left the academy,” he said. “I’m not sure if I’ve left it, or if it’s left me,” I replied. “Ah,” he said with empathy, “in divorces, it’s always like that.”
The New York Times continues to report on the consequences of Derrida’s demise; another recent article announced the parallel death of Theory. His words from Violence and Metaphysics (1963), quoted in his film portrait, may make a fitting rejoinder.
That philosophy died yesterday, since Hegel or Marx, Nietzsche or Heidegger, and that philosophy should still wander toward the meaning of its death; or that it has always lived knowing itself to be dying; that philosophy died one day within history, or that it has always fed on its own agony, on the violent way it opens history by opposing itself to non-philosophy, which is its past and its concern, its debt and wellspring; that beyond the dead or dying nature of philosophy, or perhaps even because of it, thought still has a future…these are problems put to philosophy as problems philosophy cannot resolve.
Leslie Camhi’s first-person essays and writings on art, photography, film, design, fashion, and women’s lives, have appeared in the New York Times, Vogue Magazine, and many other publications.
Leslie Camhi’s first-person essays and writings on art, photography, film, design, fashion, and women’s lives, have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue Magazine, and many other publications. Her translation from the French of Violaine Huisman’s award-winning debut novel, The Book of Mother, was published this month by Scribner. She’s on Twitter @CamhiLeslie and on Instagram @drlesliecamhi.