- Jacques Derrida:Biography in Action
Do philosophers have a life? Does it matter whether we know about them? And if they are interesting, to what extent should we know them? Do philosophers' lives matter only in relation to the ideas, concepts and the ways they understand the world? Does it make a difference if the philosopher in question is Jacques Derrida, without doubt the best known philosopher of our times? And if the answer to all these questions is affirmative, who, then, is entitled to write about such a life? The philosopher himself? A fellow philosopher? A pupil? An outsider? A professional biographer? A team of authors? And how should one conceive of this biography? How should it be written? Should one follow the Anglo-Saxon model and its ideals of accuracy and evidence, or the French model, which leaves room for literary reinterpretation, or some hybrid of the two, with the risk of simultaneously satisfying and disappointing the same readers? Countless studies on Derrida could have asked questions such as these, and Derrida himself, whose work became increasingly autobiographical in the last fifteen years of his life, was intrigued, if not obsessed, with the existential inscription of his work. Until now, however, no serious answer [End Page 139] has been given to any of these queries. The ambitious biography recently published in France (and forthcoming in English translation at Polity Press) can be seen as an example of how to confront many of the difficulties presented by attempts to tell the story of Derrida's life and works.
Some five years ago, Benoît Peeters, a versatile French author, was invited by Sophie Berlin, the Humanities editor at Flammarion, to write Jacques Derrida's biography. The choice of Peeters may have seemed unusual, for he is not a professional philosopher and cannot be counted among Derrida's pupils or specialists of his work. Moreover, the diversity of Peeters's work has always been dizzying: he has produced both creative and academic writing: fiction, non-fiction, biography, and multimedia productions. Nevertheless, Derrida and Peeters have proved a perfect match. Peeters is an accomplished biographer, having started his career with a fictional biography of French Nobel Prize winner Claude Simon, titled Omnibus, considered today one of the forerunners of what would later become known in France as the genre of "autofiction."1 This novel was followed by a very personal biographical study of poet Paul Valéry, seen from the sole viewpoint of literature, and in which the biographer poses the central question: what to make of an author who claimed "not to write"? This biography helped launch the Bartleby-like tradition in France.2 And then there is Peeters's masterpiece, a biography of Hergé, the creator of Tintin.3 As astonishingly as it may appear, Peeters's work on Derrida obliged him to revisit many of the half-hidden aspects of Hergé's life as well, mainly those linked to the period of the Nazi occupation of Belgium.
Peeters does not present himself primarily as a philosopher and he certainly never claims to have been part of Derrida's inner circle. Despite these limitations, he was really the man for the job, as demonstrated by the willingness of Derrida's widow, Marguerite Aucouturier, to give him full access to her husband's private archives—an absolute novelty in Derrida scholarship. Derrida donated part of these archives to the University of California-Irvine, where he taught during the last years of his life. After a conflict with this institution, he donated the remainder of his personal papers to the French IMEC (the Institut Mémoires de l'Édition Contemporaine), yet many documents are still in the possession of the Derrida family. Peeters's biography takes into account all of these materials, which have been studied through various research stays in California and at the Ardenne Abbey. The seriousness of Peeters's approach and the quality of the biographical data and evidence he has gathered in this book are...