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Andy Martin

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Derrida: A Biography
By Benoît Peeters (Polity Press 640pp £25.00)
Derrida and family re-enact Poussin's 'Massacre of the Inocents'

A sure sign of a compelling biography is when you throw the book down in disbelief: 'So you mean she was having an affair with him?!' (I actually blurted this out, to the consternation of fellow train passengers.) I happened to know both of them. She was a German specialist who liked to have conversations about Kafka and Nietzsche. I used to play football with him. You'd think one of them might have mentioned it.

Jacques Derrida, of course, knew all about it. Maybe I should just have asked him. But I doubt I would have got a straight answer. Derrida, the great philosopher of deconstruction, was brilliant at teasing out the evasions and mystifications and buried conflicts of our discourse, and even better at being evasive and mystifying himself. When he started giving lectures in English in America, he fretted about being understood.

Benoît 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. That in itself is a major achievement. But sometimes Peeters reminds you a little too much of one of the master's seminars. You want to shout out: 'Yes, but can you now say what you actually think about all this?!' (and 'Do you think you could keep it brief this time?').

In another way this book is about as un-Derridean as it is possible to be. It begins with his birth (to French-Algerian, Jewish parents) and childhood (he was a would-be footballer, like Camus, and a boy racer who lost his driving licence), and it ends with his death in Paris (in 2004). At school Jackie is already being advised to abstain from a 'tendency to complication' and 'superior verbalism'. It's all very linear and teleological - in other words, the kind of text that Derrida himself would probably have scorned. But it's none the worse for that. In form, Peeters is refreshingly anti-Derridean; at the level of discourse, he remains enormously sympathetic - sometimes with too much emphasis on the pathetic. Peeters's Derrida is vulnerable, sensitive, prone to bouts of melancholia, neurotic, hypochondriac, and verging on suicidal. During one period of his life he develops a phobia of flying. He is as tormented and torn as his prose. This is Derrida the poetic soul.

But there are at least two Derridas. When I studied under him in Paris in the 1980s, he was suave, charming, narcissistic, charismatic, paranoid, megalomaniac, with a great head of quiffed-up hair and some elegant suits. Obsessive-compulsive control freak, or arrogant monster? Frustrated poet or Napoleon manqué? Answer: all of the above.

And here we have the key to deconstruction (not, I should add in true deconstructive style, that there is a key): seeing these different possibilities simultaneously. The différance lies in not being able to square them or finally make sense of the totality. Deconstruction is the quantum physics of philosophy. Just as Schrödinger's cat is both alive and dead, so Plato's pharmakon is both medicine and poison. Meanings are superposed in an aporia - not 'either/or', but 'and/and'. To be and not to be. Derrida did us the service, in verbal terms, of taking what we thought of as fairly solid tables and chairs and pointing out that, apart from a few stray particles of sense whirling about, they were mainly made up of sheer nothingness. He was bound to annoy the but-hold-on-a-second-I'm-sitting-on-it-aren't-I party (otherwise known as logocentrists).

The thing that most people remember about Derrida was his habit of talking non-stop all day long, if you let him. (Personally I put my limit for listening to him during any one sitting at around two hours.) But they forget his redeeming sense of humour. His sly smiles suggested he was always ready to laugh at his own absurdity. He admired, perhaps even envied l'humour britannique. I got the impression that he would have liked to be a stand-up comedian. His inability to deliver anything approaching a punchline, however, meant that he was condemned to spend his life, like a very long-winded Woody Allen, explaining the joke that was Western metaphysics.

Or perhaps like James Joyce. As Peeters rightly points out, Derrida never really got over his first encounter with Finnegans Wake, and in many ways it became the model for his understanding - not that there is anything to understand, of course - of the text at large. Everything was a labyrinthine amalgam of languages, a towering Babel of puns and glossolalia.

Language was not just a game for Derrida, it was also a method of seduction. He was a seducer on a heroic, even epic scale, right up there with Sartre and Camus, possibly heading more in the direction of Georges Simenon or Warren Beatty. As he once said, if we want to know about Hegel's philosophy, we should really investigate what Hegel was like in love. Peeters helpfully sketches in the elements of the major secret love affair in Derrida's life: Derrida managed to hide away the love letters, and the lover herself has kept silent, but even they couldn't entirely hide the lovechild.

Peeters gives us relatively few of the kind of intimate revelations found in, for example, Hazel Rowley's tête-á-tête on Sartre and de Beauvoir or Olivier Todd's biography of Camus. On the other hand, we do get the massive intellectual seduction of America played out. Mediated through Paul de Man, Derrida was taken up and lionised by departments of comparative literature, even while rattling and outraging Anglo-American philosophers. Peeters never really clarifies why Derrida's argument with John Searle was so passionately fought on both sides. But he does draw our attention to one American female philosopher who hated Derrida so much that a French minister to whom she had written a letter of denunciation told him, 'Just don't walk down the stairs in front of this woman.'

Sadder, to my way of thinking, were the legion of adoring academics who parroted him, mimicked his mannerisms and turned him into a guru figure. This applied to most of the Yale students who crowded into his seminars in Paris. He couldn't seduce all of them, so they allowed themselves to be linguistically inseminated (or 'disseminated') instead.

You can't help but admire the figures who resisted. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was one; but above all there was Michel Foucault, who was surely right to emphasise what a traditional French philosopher Derrida was with all his 'textualisation'. I think Derrida would have appreciated the irony that his classic slogan, 'There is nothing outside the text', now appears to signify that we have all become mobile-phone fetishists. And we can now see, reasonably clearly, that just as the Impressionist paintings of the 19th century were a kind of hymn to a vanishing French countryside, so too the obsession with the 'text' was a valiant, almost nostalgic protest against the tide of information. While the structuralists bought into the binary logic of the computer age and wanted to turn everyone into a machine, Derridean poststructuralism was a reaffirmation of strangeness, darkness and idiosyncrasy.

All the same, there is no doubt that Derrida was a great empire-builder. Rather like Elvis, he surrounded himself with fans and idolators, and resented dissenters and refuseniks. There was a semi-theological feel to his seminars, which became more like seminaries. Woe betide anyone who didn't toe the party line, the dogma laid down by his priests and lieutenants. There was a controversy in Cambridge back in the 1990s when Derrida was up for an honorary doctorate. Hardcore evangelists clashed with sceptics who reckoned that Derrida was undermining Western civilisation and was a bit of a fascist to boot. I came out as anti-anti-Derridean. Peeters, almost inevitably, is more emphatically pro. As with the Yale disciples, there is a little too much homage. I find the phrase 'another superb text' tends to grate after a while.

I am not too surprised that Pierre Derrida, my football-playing friend and older son of Jacques, should have changed his last name to Alféri, to escape the tyranny of the father. He must have got fed up - as I imagine was the case in the love affair with the Germanist - with being a Derrida stunt double.

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Andy Martin's The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus is published by Simon and Schuster. He is hopeful that his earlier book, Waiting for Bardot, will finally be filmed next year.

Royal Literary Fund

John Murray