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A Biography

Benoît Peeters

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A Biography

Benoît Peeters

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This biography of Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) tells the story of a Jewish boy from Algiers, excluded from school at the age of twelve, who went on to become the most widely translated French philosopher in the world – a vulnerable, tormented man who, throughout his life, continued to see himself as unwelcome in the French university system. We are plunged into the different worlds in which Derrida lived and worked: pre-independence Algeria, the microcosm of the École Normale Supérieure, the cluster of structuralist thinkers, and the turbulent events of 1968 and after. We meet the remarkable series of leading writers and philosophers with whom Derrida struck up a friendship: Louis Althusser, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean Genet, and Hélène Cixous, among others. We also witness an equally long series of often brutal polemics fought over crucial issues with thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, John R. Searle, and Jürgen Habermas, as well as several controversies that went far beyond academia, the best known of which concerned Heidegger and Paul de Man. We follow a series of courageous political commitments in support of Nelson Mandela, illegal immigrants, and gay marriage. And we watch as a concept – deconstruction – takes wing and exerts an extraordinary influence way beyond the philosophical world, on literary studies, architecture, law, theology, feminism, queer theory, and postcolonial studies.

In writing this compelling and authoritative biography, Benoît Peeters talked to over a hundred individuals who knew and worked with Derrida. He is also the first person to make use of the huge personal archive built up by Derrida throughout his life and of his extensive correspondence. Peeters' book gives us a new and deeper understanding of the man who will perhaps be seen as the major philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century.

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The Negus

For a long time, Derrida’s readers knew nothing of his childhood or youth. At most, they might be aware of the year he was born, 1930, and the place, El Biar, on the outskirts of Algiers. Admittedly, there are several autobiographical allusions in Glas and even more in The Post Card, but they are so woven into various textual games that they remain uncertain and, as it were, undecidable.
Only in 1983, in an interview with Catherine David for Le Nouvel Observateur, did Derrida finally agree to proffer a few factual details. He did so in an ironic, vaguely tetchy way, somewhat telegraphic in style, as if in a hurry to get shot of these impossible questions:
You mentioned Algeria just now. That is where it all began for you.
Ah, you want me to say things like ‘I-was-born-in-El Biar-on-the-outskirts-of-Algiers-in-a-petty-bourgeois-family-of-assimi-lated-Jews-but. . .’ Is that really necessary? I can’t do it. You’ll have to help me . . .
What was your father’s name?
Ok, here we go. He had five names, all the names of the family are encrypted, along with a few others, in The Post Card, sometimes unreadable even for those who bear these names; often they’re not capitalized, as one might do for ‘aimé’ or ‘rené’ . . .*
How old were you when you left Algeria?
You really are persistent. I came to France at the age of nineteen. I had never left El Biar before. The 1940 war in Algeria, in other words the first underground rumblings of the Algerian war.1
In 1986, in a dialogue with Didier Cahen broadcast on France-Culture (‘Le bon plaisir de Jacques Derrida’), he restated his previous objections, while acknowledging that writing would doubtless enable him to tackle these questions:
I wish that a narration were possible. Right now, it’s not. I dream, not of managing, one day, to recount this legacy, this past experience, this history, but at least of giving a narrative account of it among other possible accounts. But, in order to get there, I’d have to undertake a particular kind of work, I’d have to set out on an adventure that up until now I’ve not managed. To invent, to invent a language, to invent modes of anamnesis . . . . 2
Derrida’s references to his childhood gradually became less reluctant. In Ulysses Gramophone (first French edition published in 1987), he mentioned his secret forename, Élie,* the name that was given to him on the seventh day of his life; in Memoirs of the Blind, three years later, he described his ‘wounded jealousy’ of the talent for drawing that his family recognized in his brother René.
The year 1991 was a turning-point, with the volume Jacques Derrida coming out in the series ‘Les Contemporains’, published by Éditions du Seuil: not only was Jacques Derrida’s contribution, ‘Circumfession’, autobiographical from beginning to end, but in the ‘Curriculum vitae’ that followed Geoffrey Bennington’s analysis, the philosopher agreed to submit to what he called ‘the law of genre’, even if he did so with an enthusiasm that his co-author described, delicately, as ‘uneven’.3 But childhood and youth were by far the most heavily emphasized parts of his life, at least as regards any personal reflections.
Thereafter, autobiographical references in Derrida’s written work became increasingly frequent. As he acknowledged in 1998: ‘Over the last couple of decades [. . .], in a way that is both fictitious and not fictitious, first-person texts have become more common: personal records, confessions, reflections on the possibility or impossibility of confession.’4 As soon as we start to fit these fragments together, they provide us with a remarkably precise narrative, albeit one that is both repetitive and full of gaps. They constitute a priceless source – the main source for that period, and the only source that enables us to describe Derrida’s childhood empathetically, as if from within. But these first-person narratives, of course, need to be read, first and foremost, as texts. They should be approached as cautiously as the Confessions of Saint Augustine or Rousseau. And in any case, as Derrida acknowledges, they are belated reconstructions, both fragile and uncertain: ‘I try to recall, through documented facts and subjective pointers, what I might have thought or felt at that time, but, more often than not, these attempts fail.’5
The material traces that can be added to, and compared with, this wealth of autobiographical material are, unfortunately, few and far between. Many of the family papers seem to have disappeared in 1962, when Derrida’s parents left El Biar in some haste. I have not found a single letter from the Algerian period. And, in spite of my efforts, I have not been able to locate even the least document from the schools that Derrida attended. But I have been lucky enough to have access to four valuable witnesses from those distant years: René and Janine Derrida – Jackie’s older brother and his sister – and his cousin Micheline Lévy, as well as Fernand Acharrok, one of his closest friends from that period.
In 1930, the year of Derrida’s birth, Algeria celebrated in great pomp the centenary of its conquest by the French. During his visit there, French President Gaston Doumergue made a point of lauding ‘the admirable work of colonization and civilization’ that had been carried out over the previous century. This was seen, by many people, as the high point of French Algeria. The following year, in the Bois de Vincennes, the Colonial Exhibition received thirty-three million visitors, whereas the anti-colonial exhibition organized by the Surrealists met with the most modest of successes.
With its 300,000 inhabitants, its cathedral, its museum, and its broad avenues, Algiers, the ‘white city’ (‘Alger la Blanche’), was a kind of display window for France in Africa. Everything in it was deliberately reminiscent of the cities of metropolitan France, starting with the street names: there was the avenue Georges-Clemenceau, the boulevard Gallieni, the rue Michelet, the place Jean-Mermoz, and so on. The ‘Muslims’ or ‘natives’ – as the Arabs were generally called – were slightly outnumbered by the ‘Europeans’. The Algeria in which Jackie would grow up was a profoundly unequal society, as regards both political rights and standards of living. Communities coexisted but barely mingled – in particular, there were few mixed marriages.
Like many Jewish families, the Derridas had come over from Spain long before the French conquest of Algeria. Right from the start of colonization, the Jews had been considered by the French forces of occupation as useful people, potential allies – and this distanced them from the Muslims with whom they had hitherto lived. Another event separated them even more markedly: on 24 October 1870, French minister Adolphe Crémieux gave his name to the decree granting French citizenship, en bloc, to the 35,000 Jews living in Algeria. This did not stop anti-Semitism from breaking out in Algeria after 1897. The following year, Édouard Drumont, the notorious author of Jewish France, was elected as député for Algiers.6
One of the consequences of the Crémieux Decree was an increase in the level of assimilation of Jews into French life. Of course, Jewish religious traditions were maintained, but in a purely private space. Jewish forenames were Gallicized or, as in the Derrida family, relegated to a discreet second place. People referred to the ‘temple’ rather than the ‘synagogue’, to ‘communion’ rather than ‘bar-mitzvah’. Derrida himself, much more attentive to historical questions than is often thought, was keenly aware of this change:
I was part of an extraordinary transformation of French Judaism in Algeria: my great grandparents were still very close to the Arabs in language and customs. At the end of the nineteenth century, in the years following the Crémieux decree of 1870, the next generation became more bourgeois: though my [maternal] grandmother had to be married almost clandestinely in the back courtyard of a town hall in Algiers because of the pogroms (this was right in the middle of the Dreyfus Affair), she was already raising her daughters like bourgeois Parisian girls (16th Arrondissement good manners, piano lessons, and so on). Then came my parents’ generation: few intellectuals, mostly shopkeepers, some of modest means and some not, some who were already exploiting a colonial situation by becoming the exclusive representatives of major metropolitan brands.7
Derrida’s father, Haïm Aaron Prosper Charles, was called Aimé; he was born in Algiers on 26 September 1896. When he was twelve, he was apprenticed to the wine and spirits company Tachet; he was to work there all his life, as had his own father, Abraham Derrida, and as Albert Camus’s father had done – he too was employed in a wine-shipping business in Algiers harbour. Between the wars, wine was the main source of revenue for Algeria, and its vineyards were the fourth biggest in the world.
On 31 October 1923, Aimé married Georgette Sultana Esther Safar, born on 23 July 1901, the daughter of Moïse Safar (1870–1943) and Fortunée Temime (1880–1961). Their first child, René Abraham, was born in 1925. A second son, Paul Moïse, died when he was three months old, on 4 September 1929, less than a year before the birth of Jacques Derrida. This would make of him, he later wrote in ‘Circumfession’, ‘a precious but so vulnerable intruder, one mortal too many, Élie loved [aimé] in the place of another’.8
Jackie was born at daybreak, on 15 July 1930, at El Biar, in the hilly suburbs of Algiers, in a holiday home. Right up until the last minute, his mother refused to break off a poker game: poker would remain her lifelong passion. The boy’s main forename was probably chosen because of Jackie Coogan, who had the star role in The Kid. When he was circumcised, he was given a second forename, Élie, which was not entered on his birth certificate, unlike the equivalent names of his brother and sister.
Until 1934, the family lived in town, except during the summer months. They lived in the rue Saint-Augustin, which might seem like too much of a coincidence given the importance that the saintly author of the Confessions would have in Derrida’s work. He later retained only the vaguest images of this first home, where his parents lived for nine years: ‘a dark hallway, a grocer’s down from the house’.9
Shortly before the birth of a new child, the Derridas moved to El Biar – in Arabic, ‘the well’ – quite an affluent suburb where the children could breathe more freely. The parents plunged themselves into debt for many years when they bought their modest villa, 13, rue d’Aurelle-de-Paladines. It was located ‘on the edge of an Arab district and a Catholic cemetery, at the end of the chemin du Repos’, and came with a garden that Derrida would refer to later as the Orchard, the Pardes or PaRDeS, as he liked to write it, an image of Paradise and of the Day of Atonement (‘Grand Pardon’), and an essential place in kabbalistic tradition.
The birth of Derrida’s sister Janine gave rise to an anecdote that was constantly being retold in the family, the ‘first words’ of his that have come down to us. When his grandparents beckoned him into the bedroom, they showed him a travelling bag that probably contained the basic implements used in deliveries in those days, and told him that his little sister had just come out of it. Jackie went up to the cot and stared at the baby before declaring, ‘I want her to be put back in her bag.’
At the age of five or six, Jackie was a very charming lad. With a little boater on his head, he would sing Maurice Chevalier songs at family parties; he was often nicknamed ‘the Negus’ as his skin was so dark. Throughout his early childhood, the relation between Jackie and his mother was particularly intense. Georgette, who had been left with a childminder until she was three, was neither very affectionate nor very demonstrative towards her children. This did not stop Jackie from completely worshipping her, almost like the young Narrator of À la Recherche du temps perdu. Derrida later described himself as ‘the child whom the grown-ups amused themselves by making cry for nothing’, the child ‘who up until puberty cried out “Mummy I’m scared” every night until they let him sleep on a divan near his parents’.10 When he was sent to school, he stood in the schoolyard in tears, his face pressed against the railings.
I vividly remember being really upset, upset at being separated from my family, from my mother, my tears, my yells at nursery school, I can still see the teacher telling me, ‘Your mother’s coming to fetch you,’ and I’d ask, ‘Where is she?’ and she’d tell me, ‘She’s doing the cooking,’ and I imagined that in this nursery school [. . .], there was a place where my mother was doing the cooking. I can remember crying and yelling when I went in, and laughing when I came out. [. . .] I went so far as to make up illnesses to get me off school, I kept asking them to take my temperature.11
The future author of ‘Tympan’ and The Ear of the Other mainly suffered from repeated attacks of earache, which aroused considerable anxiety in his family. He was taken from one doctor to another. Treatment at the time was aggressive: rubber syringes filled with warm water that pierced the eardrum. On one occasion, there was even talk of removing his mastoid bone, a very painful but in those days quite common operation.
A much more serious and dramatic event occurred during this period: Derrida’s cousin Jean-Pierre, who was a year older, was run over by a car and killed, outside his home in Saint-Raphaël. The shock was made even worse by the fact that, at school, Jackie was at first wrongly told that it was his brother René who had just died. He would always be scarred by this first bereavement. One day, he would tell his cousin Micheline Lévy that it had taken him years to understand why he had wanted to call his two sons Pierre and Jean.
At primary school, Jackie was a very good pupil, except when it came to his handwriting, which was deemed impossible to read, and would remain so. ‘At break, the teacher, who knew that I was top of the class, would tell me, “Go back and rewrite this, it’s illegible; when you go to the lycée you’ll be able to get away with writing like this; but it’s not acceptable now.’”12
In this school, doubtless like many others in Algeria, racial problems were already very much to the fore: there was a great deal of brutality among the pupils. Still very timid, Jackie viewed school as hell – he felt so exposed there. Every day, he was afraid that the fights would get worse. ‘There was racist, racial violence, which spread out all over the place, anti-Arab racism, anti-Semitic, anti-Italian, anti-Spanish racism . . . All sorts! All forms of racism could be encountered . . . .,’13
There were many ‘native’ youngsters at primary school, but they tended to disappear when it was time to enter the lycée. Derrida would describe the situation in Monolingualism of the Other; Arabic was considered to be a foreign language, and while it was possible to learn it, this was never encouraged. As for the reality of life in Algeria, it was kept completely out of the picture: the history of France taught to pupils was ‘an incredible discipline, a fable and a bible, yet a doctrine of indoctrination almost ineffaceable’. Not a word was said about Algeria, nothing about its history or its geography, whereas the children were required to be able to ‘draw the coast of Brittany and the Gironde estuary with our eye...

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Citation styles for Derrida
APA 6 Citation
Peeters, B. (2013). Derrida (1st ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Peeters, Benoit. (2013) 2013. Derrida. 1st ed. Wiley.
Harvard Citation
Peeters, B. (2013) Derrida. 1st edn. Wiley. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Peeters, Benoit. Derrida. 1st ed. Wiley, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.