A new biography of the French philosopher
Jonathan Wright reviews David Mikics new biography, Who Was Jacques Derrida?
If I asked you to name a 20th-century francophone philosopher, you’d probably shout Sartre or Derrida. Quite right: but there’s a gap between the two men’s reputations. Sartre sneaks into our affections. He was the ugly chap who managed to seduce women. His philosophy, while bleak, allowed us to dream: the universe was absurd and our intellectual gymnastics were pointless but there was an ounce or two of nobility in the attempt to fathom the unfathomable. Better yet, many of Sartre’s writings were eminently readable — the texts that alienated teenagers could half understand while deciding that the world didn’t appreciate them.Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography by David Mikics is published by Yale, priced £25.
Derrida was a different story. He was good-looking and his philosophy was both devastatingly unsettling and, at first inspection, impenetrable. He was fleetingly fashionable among the yoof (one of his books even appeared in a Jean-Luc Godard film) but, before too long, the general public cast him aside.
It was because of Derrida, so the story went, that academic writing about literature became a morass of wayward theorising. Some of his academic peers hated him too. When Derrida was offered an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University in 1992, an angry, eminent bunch wrote a letter to The Times in which they denounced Derrida’s lack of intellectual clarity and his reliance upon “tricks and gimmicks”. It is safe to say that Derrida always divided opinion.
One of the strengths of Mikics’s magnificent book is its even-handedness. He takes Derrida to task when he deserves it (and he often does) but he also reminds us that Derrida was a fitfully brilliant thinker. As Mikics concludes, Derrida’s philosophising “was neither as world changing as his disciples claimed nor as dangerous (or absurd) as his critics suspected”. That sounds about right.
Explaining Derrida’s ideas is excruciatingly difficult and Mikics is to be commended for making things palatable for the general reader. Derrida might have been self-satisfied, he might have ridden roughshod over philosophical tradition, but he was much more than a snake-oil salesman.
Mikics identifies a clear, perhaps tragic trajectory in Derrida’s thought. At first Derrida was an iconoclast. His chosen victim was metaphysical certainty. Western philosophy has often aimed at stability. It wanted to achieve, through the exercise of reason, a satisfying account of the universe and mankind’s ethical identity. For Derrida, such aspirations were pointless. During the 1960s he was a sceptic to his bootstraps. The search for meaning and clarity was ridiculous. Everything is in flux and we can’t even trust our own words or actions. A consistent self or a reliable analysis of the human condition are will o’ the wisps. [Read the article]
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