March 17, 2013

Biography paints Derrida as a wizard of words

“Derrida: A Biography” by Benoit Peeters, translated by Andrew Brown (Polity, 700 pages, $35)

“Derrida: A Biography” by Benoit Peeters, translated by Andrew Brown (Polity, 700 pages, $35)

“There is nothing outside the text.”

With that phrase, Jacques Derrida sparked a firestorm that swept through 20th-

century philosophy and is still burning today: deconstruction.

At first entranced by the upsurge of flames, other philosophers quickly lost interest in Derrida because he flouted the law of non-contradiction, attempted to shatter the foundations of reason, and called “Yes” “No” and “No” “Yes.”

His flamboyant musings had little choice, then, but to leap over fire walls into other fields of inquiry: literary criticism, ethnic studies, even architecture.

Remarkably, almost 50 years after Derrida struck his first match, deconstruction continues to smolder in certain outposts of academia.

But plenty of readers have been burned by Derrida’s radically iconoclastic, seemingly anarchic takes on reality.

He has been castigated as a nihilist, an irrationalist, a Nazi sympathizer, a fraud, a hater of all that is good in Western civilization, and a Nietzschean destroyer of meaning. Or, just as passionately, he has been hailed as a Messiah of new thought.

Whichever side of the divide you land on – and both can be compelling – Derrida is a thinker whom others love to hate.

In his impressive, massive biography – reviewing 80 volumes of the philosopher’s writings in French, interviewing more than 100 people who knew “Jackie” firsthand, and gaining the cooperation of Derrida’s widow, Marguerite – Benoit Peeters, a former student of Derrida’s, tells a captivating tale of the enfant terrible outsider.

Deeply affected by poetic anguish – at least as Peeters understands him – Derrida lurked on the fringes of rational discourse, making swift, guerrilla attacks on our traditional uses of language.

To him, words signified more and less than what they articulated; thus, they proved infinitely malleable – which may be one reason his own words never sound quite


For what lies outside the text is not nothing, as he asserted, but something other than language: the readers’ lives.

Those lives have kept the fire of deconstruction glowing much longer than Derrida could have expected when he died of pancreatic cancer in 2004.

And Peeters’ authoritative biography lets us peer into the embers and decide whether they give off more heat than light .

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