This week a piece by Emily Eakins on the New York Review blog discusses a new biography of Jacques Derrida by Benoît Peeters, the gist of which, according to the blog (I haven’t read the book), is that Derrida’s experience of being excluded from the French university system accounts for deconstruction, as a kind of philosophical idiom of the rejected remainder that keeps on coming back. A nice idea, but it isn’t framed in terms that fit the France of Derrida’s time (roughly 1950-2000). Derrida spent most of his career at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, not in any of the French universities. But this was no rustication. Normale Sup’ is one of the grandes écoles, the establishments that are the hardest to get into (entrance is by a daunting written and oral exam) and that, like the US Ivy League, give students a professional network and a guaranteed first good posting. (In this last respect, actually better than the Ivies.) The University, by contrast, admits a far wider range of students– not quite open admissions, but the gate is vastly wider than for ENS, Polytechnique, ENA and the like. Imagine the ENS as Swarthmore and the Sorbonne as CUNY; not exactly right, but it’s a start. After the student uprisings of May 1968, university reforms enlarged the enrollment but didn’t enlarge the budgets proportionately, with the expectable results: huge classes, apathetic students, many people getting stuck halfway. So being “excluded” from the university and parked on the rue d’Ulm was far from a bad thing.
The ENS curriculum (I sat in on Derrida’s courses and attended his seminar for two years there in the early 80s) was flexible and meant to guide students’ own research. Part of the program was set every year by the ministry of education, which accounts for some of the breadth of Derrida’s writing; he couldn’t just specialize in Husserl, but might have to teach Epictetus one year, Spinoza the next. Eakins says that his position didn’t allow Derrida to have doctoral students until he moved to the EHESS in 1984. This may be strictly true (the ENS does not confer the Ph.D) but gives a misleading impression, as all the people I knew from the seminar, many of them foreigners like me, were on or about to be on the path to a dissertation.
Likewise, the talk about Derrida’s marginality in France is an exaggeration. His books weren’t published by the ostensible “top” firm of Gallimard, but by Minuit, Seuil, and Galilée. To be selected by Jérôme Lindon, the heroic head of Minuit, was to be in the best possible company: Beckett, Blanchot, Camus, Genet. Le Seuil was the house of Barthes, among so many others. At Galilée he was at the center of the editorial team. If ever Derrida’s works come out in a Pléiade edition (they deserve to, for their virtuosic literary quality), that nec plus ultra of canonization, fragrant format of Proust, Mallarmé and Baudelaire, I’ll be surprised, but not shocked.
I doubt his picture appeared in the paper one-hundredth as many times as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre’s or our contemporary Michel Onfray’s. But he didn’t need that. He was demanding, he was no teddy bear as a teacher (I remember going to see him at office hours one day and hearing him complain to someone over the phone about what a pain in the ass it was to hold office hours), many people thought he was a nihilist or a hooligan, but enough people took him seriously and stared throughout his two-hour presentations like wildcats intent on prey that I would say, speaking from the outside of course, that life was good to him.