A Matter of Rhythm: Benoît Peeters’s “Derrida: A Biography”

JACQUES DERRIDA will have been the greatest thinker of the 20th century. This might sound like the opinion of a misinformed, biased, sycophantic fan willfully ignorant of intellectual history. To nominate one person as meriting such an accolade would be to ignore and trivialize the achievements of all the other great thinkers of the past century, to treat what deserves utmost seriousness as a game or a horse race. Yet the great impact and wide-ranging influence of Derrida’s writings on the study and practice of a broad range of disciplines such as philosophy, art and aesthetics, political theory, literature and literary studies, psychoanalysis, religious studies, law, architecture and urban planning, linguistics, post-colonialism, and even science, which will take years to be measured and assessed, will bear out what at first appears to be a wildly exaggerated remark. No other 20th-century thinker will have had such a profound effect on so many domains of knowledge as Derrida.

For most of his life, certainly in the early parts of his career, Derrida resisted discussions of his personal life and did not allow the use of publicity photographs. Yet given Derrida’s “exotic” background and striking good looks, his political involvements and philosophical commitments, and the international reception of his work, his life seems tailor-made for biography. Derrida showed an awareness of this expectation for his life to be on display when, asked about his background in a 1983 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur (cited in the first chapter of Benoît Peeters’s new biography), he somewhat mockingly recited the beginning of the expected answer: “Ah, you want me to say things like ‘I-was-born-in-El Biar-on-the-outskirts-of-Algiers-in-a-petit-bourgeois-family-of-assimilated-Jews-but …’ Is that really necessary?” Derrida’s reserved and cautious attitude toward the biographical was not a disingenuous affectation or mere coquetry, but a genuine reflection about, and a rethinking of, the relation between life and thought, a relation that is too much taken for granted in our media-obsessed culture.

Biography as a genre tends to overlook and simplify complex matters, concentrating on salacious trivia and the details of the personal life while paying scant attention to the work that the writer or artist spent the majority of his or her life engaged with. Biography then gathers up the life into a totality, a meaningful whole, providing the type of after-the-fact, omniscient assessments favored by those who have placed themselves in a position to deliver judgments from on high. Adopting a God’s eye view, the biographer sits in judgment regarding the accomplishments and shortcomings or frailties of the mere mortal, who is unable to speak for himself. Biography, even those of intellectual figures, assumes a general reader, a reader who does not understand or want to understand the ideas of its subject. The biography of a philosopher magnifies this approach, turning its attention simply to the “significant events” in the life of the philosopher.

Geoffrey Bennington, surely one of the best interpreters of Derrida’s thought, once predicted that “sooner or later some form of ‘biography’ [of Derrida] might get written, and it would seem difficult in this case to imagine a biography that managed to take into account what the subject of that biography thought and wrote.” Bennington, who when approached to write a biography of Derrida refused to write one, has argued in several places that biography is itself a fundamentally philosophical concept. Biography is a philosophical genre par excellence, such that “a biography of a philosopher is in some senses the most biographical biography imaginable.” If since Plato, according to Montaigne, “to philosophize is to learn [how] to die,” then the philosophical life is a life oriented toward death. Thus, the biography of a philosopher would have to be written from the philosopher’s death, confirming the philosopher’s life as having been truly philosophical: a life of wisdom oriented toward death and thus worthy of philosophy. However, in his last interview, a few months before his death, Jacques Derrida admitted that he had not learned how to die. He had never learned to accept death as such, and, in this sense, Derrida was aware that he could not, strictly speaking, be defined as a philosopher.


So “what would a biography of Jacques Derrida have to look like to be a Derridean biography?” Bennington asks. Although he does not provide a detailed roadmap for this other biography, anyone attempting such a biography of Derrida would surely have to have read, even if cursorily, Derrida’s voluminous writings (around 80 books), uncollected texts, student work, notes prepared for his courses, and 43 years of seminars, in addition to the authors he commented on, the secondary literature (books, articles, special issues of journals, conferences, press articles, correspondence sent and received), contextual works (biographies and historical narratives regarding the historical events during his life), and so on — a list that, according to Benoît Peeters, can provoke either laughter or despair. The “fractal” or Derridean biography that Bennington hints at would have to be written by someone whose intellectual approach to biography, and to all the themes that make up a biography (life, death, work, love, fidelity, friendship, etc.), had been shaped by Derrida’s writings, writings that put into question all the assumptions and concepts of the biographical genre.

By his own admission, Peeters is not such a person. However, by the standards of the genre, he has produced a refined, fair-minded biography, genuinely sympathetic to the man and his work. For as much as can be expected from a nonexpert of Derrida’s work, he attends to the intricacies of Derrida’s thought without claiming to have written an “intellectual biography.” His biography — 740 pages in the 2010 French edition, and 629 pages in English — is a monumental tome. It is the result of meticulous research conducted at the Derrida archives at the Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC), located at the Abbaye d’Ardenne in Normandy, and at University of California, Irvine’s Langson Library. Peeters contacted and interviewed as many friends, experts, associates, colleagues, and family members of Derrida as he could, in order to sketch as full a picture of Derrida’s philosophical trajectory as possible. In addition, Peeters was able to flesh out the details of his accounts by referring to a variety of documents, both public and private, thanks to the fact that Marguerite Derrida, Derrida’s wife, gave him full access to the philosopher’s personal archives (including notes and correspondence, many of which are not held at Irvine or IMEC).

Some may wonder about the choice of the biographer. It’s not just that Peeters is not a specialist of Derrida’s work; indeed, he is not even a professional philosopher. A thoughtful author of fiction, essays, graphic novels, and biographies (notably the fictional “biography” of the novelist Claude Simon and inventive biographies of the poet Paul Valéry and Hergé, the writer and creator of Tintin), Peeters could not be considered, nor does he consider himself to be, an “insider.” He did, however, meet Derrida personally and attend some of his seminars. In 1985 Derrida wrote the afterword to Droit de regards (Right of Inspection), a “photo-novel” conceived by Peeters and Marie-Françoise Plissart. While Derrida and Peeters exchanged some letters and books, this was the extent of their involvement. Peeters’s theoretical background consists of being Roland Barthes’s student in his 20s. (Incidentally, an interest in Barthes links the biographer and his translator, Andrew Brown, who taught French at Cambridge University for many years and is the author of the very fine 1992 study Roland Barthes: The Figures of Writing.)

When Peeters was approached to write Derrida’s biography in August 2007, he agreed to embark upon “an adventure” after some initial reservations. Already having a certain esteem for the subject of the proposed biography, he decided to conduct himself like a “posthumous friend” of Derrida. The publication of the biography in France was accompanied by a companion text, Trois ans avec Derrida, a journal containing the biographer’s notes and reflections on researching and writing the biography over the course of three years. This volume displays Peeters’s continual questioning of the approach he took toward writing about Derrida. His desire was to write something other than a “Life,” the genre that has been traditionally used for philosophers. He hoped to avoid what he calls “chronologism,” which tediously details and accompanies the subject event after event and producing the so-called “definitive biography,” and he questions the vanity of the desire to know everything, to understand everything. Peeters’s belief is that the biographer has to be part historian, part essayist, part novelist. His or her art, he writes, is “a matter of rhythm.”

In his journal Peeters lists a range of 10 options available to him, including an essay-biography à la française (around 350 pages with no consultation of archives and no interviews with witnesses), a factual biography à la anglo-saxone (around 600 to 800 pages, chronological but with almost no analysis, with considerable research, consulting numerous documents and witnesses and containing an enormous number of dates — think, for example, of Leon Edel’s Henry James: A Life, Jean-Yves Tadié’s Marcel Proust: A Life, and Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens), a revealing “tell-all” biography, and a deconstructed biography (multiple, stratified rather than hierarchical, suspicious of narrative and chronological linearity).

Peeters decides against writing an intellectual biography containing discussions of Derrida’s philosophy or ideas because of the aspects of a life that such biographies exclude — childhood, family, love, material life, and so on. Noting the impossibility of being able to rigorously distinguish between the biographical and the intellectual, he opts to write an account of the life of the man that aims to be different from other books in that genre.


As is well known to his readers, and as I already pointed out, Derrida found the notion of “intellectual biography” problematic. “A new problematic of the biographical in general and of the biography of philosophers in particular,” he wrote in The Ear of the Other (1982), “must mobilize other resources” that would think anew the borderline between the “work” and the “life.” But what constitutes a “life”? Where and in what does one look for its signs? And how is one to interpret them?

Alert to the complexity of these questions, Derrida’s work thus also involved a rethinking of “autobiography,” an autobiography that put the autos, the self, into question. Since the self is never self-same, self-coincident, he wove the “personal” into the “theoretical” to produce an entirely new genre that could not be reduced to either. The careful reader could find many autobiographical elements dispersed throughout his writings: for example, the encrypted names of family members and loved ones. This genre of writing, which has yet to be fully examined and appreciated, would pose enormous challenges for his biographer.

Besides the categories of “life” and “work,” a biography of Derrida faithful to his thought would have to take the measure of the notion of the “secret,” a notion that he devoted various texts and a year-long seminar to. In Derrida’s view, the autobiographical is the “locus” of the secret, but the secret is not, as we normally think of it, something private that is kept hidden from public view. The secret is not something that can be revealed or unveiled, nor does it conceal itself. In fact, as Derrida wrote, it depends on its ability to be read by everyone, “at the same moment when it is speaking to us of secrets in secret.” Even though the political sphere of Western democratic countries is shaped by the private/public distinction and the ideal of transparency, and hence intolerant and suspicious of secrecy as somehow reminiscent of an anti-modern worldview, Derrida always argued for a right to the secret and believed that democracies are threatened and become totalitarian when they neglect this right.

If a biography belongs to a genre of writing, so does a book review, with its unwritten rules and expectations. A review of a biography is no exception. The reviewer must invariably provide a brief synopsis of the biography’s contents, summarize the important events in the life of its subject and go into some detail, preferably highlighting the most intimate ones, in doing so. This often ensures that the reader will not read the book itself, since the book review often substitutes for having to read the book itself. What happens if in a review of Derrida’s biography, the reviewer does not accede to the demands of the genre? Would it suffice to point out that Derrida himself protested the oversimplifying function of such reviews? Will it be adequate to say that, having described the virtues of the biography under review, but without rehearsing its most important details, the review has pointed the interested reader to discover these details by him or herself? In addition, one would be remiss here not to mention the treatment that Derrida himself received during his lifetime from journals that make it their “business” to oversee the review of books. In particular, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books were forums, most notably during the “Cambridge Affair” and the “Heidegger Affair,” in which he received biased and unfair treatment.

In a tactful and honest manner, Peeters has produced a detailed and exhaustive chronological account of Derrida’s life and intellectual itinerary, dividing the biography into three parts: “Part 1 Jackie 1930–1962,” “Part 2 Derrida 1963–1983,” and “Part 3 Jacques Derrida 1984–2004.” Peeters describes Derrida’s youth in Algeria before his departure for Paris in 1949; his years of study at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and École normale supérieure; his one-year stay at Harvard during the academic year 1956–57; his year of being drafted and teaching in Koléa, Algeria, as a second-class soldier in civilian dress; his tenure at the lycée at Le Mans; his first position at the Sorbonne in the early 1960s; the assiduous performance of his teaching duties as an assistant at the École normale from 1964 to 1983; his institutional marginalization in France and his regular teaching stints in the United States, beginning in 1975, at Yale, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, University of California, Irvine, and New York University; his initiative in founding a new institution, the Collège international de philosophie, in 1983; and his participation in numerous international colloquia and the international rise of his intellectual profile, in the 1980s and beyond, while providing details of friendships and hardships, alliances and polemics, throughout the decades.

At the beginning of the book, Peeters sets himself a test to evaluate the success of a biography: “If there is an ethics of biographers, it can perhaps be located here: would they dare to stand, book in hand, in front of their subject?” The hope is that Derrida would be smiling at him, from wherever he is.