Share via Email Passionate thinker In short, he has written an excellent biography entirely in keeping with Anglo-Saxon traditions. He also interviewed around essential figures. A year later he met Paul de Man, a theorist of modernist literary criticism, who introduced him to several US universities.

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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.

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. 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.

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. 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. 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. Some may wonder about the choice of the biographer. While Derrida and Peeters exchanged some letters and books, this was the extent of their involvement. 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 study Roland Barthes: The Figures of Writing.

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.

Where and in what does one look for its signs? And how is one to interpret them? 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. The secret is not something that can be revealed or unveiled, nor does it conceal itself. 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. 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.

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?


BenoƮt Peeters



Marguerite Aucouturier


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