Benoît Peeters’ Derrida A Biography

Derrida A Biography is an oversized book, heavy too. My original plan was to read it at home in the evenings and weekends, with a more conveniently sized paperback for my other reading, on planes, trains and in the bath. If it wasn’t for the sheer joy of reading in a hot steamy bath, I’d have a shower preference. Benoît Peeter’s Derrida biography was so captivating that I not only lumped it around whilst commuting, but also, despite aching arms, read in while soaking in the bath.

Peeters explains that his intention is not “to provide an introduction to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, let alone a new interpretation,” but intends to “present the biography of a philosophy at least as much as the story of an individual.” Both aims are achieved. The pacing of the biography is perfect. Often biographers get bogged down in the pre-adult years. In this case Peeters gives us enough to feel the shape of Derrida’s origins and the beginnings of the hell-hounds that would overshadow his life (depression) without a bunch of humdrum psychoanalysis. Right on time we leave Jackie behind for Jacques’ adulthood. It didn’t feel right thinking of Derrida as Jackie so I was ready for the transition.

Derrida's Library

Derrida’s Library

Judging by the access that Peeters got to Derrida’s family, friends and archives, this is an authorised biography, although he doesn’t shrink away from revealing the many feuds, and Derrida’s all important affair with Sylviane Agacinski, (who would go on to marry French politician Lionel Jospin), it is compassionate and avoids overt criticism of Derrida. As an intellectual biography the book does a superb job of recounting the shifting nature of Derrida’s concerns as a writer.

As a polarizing figure, few people are lukewarm about Derrida, but his portrayal by Peeters is of a deeply humane man, unstinting in his support of friends, relentless in his philosophical beliefs in the face of near constant criticism and rejection. Though I’ve struggled through several of Derrida’s texts, which I read as poetic, performative prose, it is the man I’m drawn to. Avital Ronell said of Derrida, “his solitude was immense, profound,” and somehow that solitude is communicated in his texts, and in the many interviews that are online from the later years of his life. That solitude is magnetic.

Read Adam Shatz’s very good LRB review of this biography and/or Terry Eagleton’s Guardian review.