Of Spirit

The late, great Derrida's last lectures had a mysterious double in the crowd

Jacques Derrida, the world's most famous philosopher, died of pancreatic cancer in a Paris hospital on October 8. He had long been shy of the spotlight. From 1962 to 1979 he refused to be photographed, relenting only when Le Monde ran a photo of Michel Foucault with the caption "Jacques Derrida." Wary of iconization, he combined extreme discretion as regarded his private person and life, and extreme generosity as concerned teaching and lecturing. He spoke in dozens of countries on hundreds of occasions on topics from Plato to phenomenology, Heidegger to hospitality, Descartes to deconstruction. He gave lectures in support of political causes such as the anti-apartheid movement, the rights of Algerian immigrants, and the plight of Czech dissidents, and he gave other lectures simply because he was invited. A telling (if apocryphal) Kansas appearance: An audience member stood up and recounted the scene from The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy and her friends finally meet the wizard, who is powerful and overwhelming until Toto pulls away the curtain to reveal a very small man. "Professor Derrida, are you like that?" the audience member asked. Derrida paused before replying, "You mean like the dog?"

Appearances notwithstanding, this was no joke—or at least not merely one. The image of Derrida that readers often had was that of a wizard—wonderful or not—booming from behind an imposing curtain of works and words. But to himself, he was far more like the dog. The philosophical vocation that he adopted and advocated was a classical one—that of tugging at the loose ends of accepted truths, of taking hold of the curtains of metaphysical, linguistic, and political certainty, and pulling.

I arrived very early at the gated building in the center of Paris where Derrida taught in his last years. If I arrived early enough, I saw the following. Hours before the lecture was scheduled to begin, the first group of auditors arrived: the misinformed. They had heard, as once had I, that they needed to arrive wildly early to secure a seat—which was untrue. They would look about the near-empty auditorium, suspecting they were in the wrong room, before resigning themselves to wait and producing passionately tattered copies of Derrida's Of Grammatology in one of the many languages into which it had been grammatologized. Foreign emissaries continued to trickle in for another half-hour, and then the first major domestic detachments began to arrive.


A memorial service for Jacques Derrida will take place on Friday, November 19, from 2:30 to 5 p.m. in Sulzberger Parlor, 3rd Floor, Barnard Hall (3009 Broadway at West 117th Street). For more information, contact Suzanne Trimel at 212-854-2037 or e-mail strimel@barnard.edu.

Familiar faces appeared. An hour and 15 minutes before the lecture, the most unusual of Derrida's usual suspects—his giant double—would arrive. It was said that he hadn't missed a lecture in decades. Upon entering, he would cast such a fierce, "deconstructing" glance—as a woman sitting behind me once called it—that the room grew still. After scanning the crowd for we never knew what, he mounted heavily to his accustomed seat on the left side of the auditorium, which we unkindly called "the lunatic fringe." I would always make a point of asking whoever happened to be sitting next to me who this man was, and heard that he was a psychoanalyst, a pharmacist, an oceanographer, a madman; that he was Derrida's brother, his barber; that he was Derrida himself.

As his auditors knew, Derrida was a master of conceptual disguise. His lectures typically followed a winding path. He would begin with a paradox, or just some very weird statement ("Speech is speechless," "Nietzsche's umbrella was no ordinary umbrella"), and once he had his audience's attention, would gradually and gracefully guide the paradox from deep space to inner space, from nonsense to sense. Derrida's pharmacist, or whatever he was, would ask a question at the end of nearly every one of these lectures. The question would be a mirror image of what we had just heard. It would begin with sense—good, sound, irrefutable sense—and then veer eerily away, grading from question to statement, statement to rant, rant to raving, sense to nonsense. At some point he would be cut off by either an impatient audience, or a patient Derrida. The effect was so curious that during my first weeks I was sure the two were working in concert in the interest of greater deconstruction. To this day I am not certain.

A group of elegant women invariably sat in the front row. They were often warmly dressed and, to the wonderment of the auditorium, would remain so even through the "sultry" period of the lecture when, after roughly an hour, overcrowding and poor ventilation would send temperatures soaring and induce light-headedness in listeners sitting in the upper reaches of the vertiginous auditorium. Various theories reigned as to how the elegant women kept cool. A man in the seat next to me (himself clad from head to foot in leather) speculated that as Derrida's thought operated according to special "magnetic principles," and as "weather is essentially magnetism," temperatures very near Derrida's body might be much different than those, say, 20 feet away. I changed seats.

Magnetism and leather were important elements in these lectures. Derrida provided the magnetism, and his audience the leather. Paris boasted a rich variety of lectures and seminars offered by erudite and even charismatic teachers. But none drew such varied crowds as Derrida's. Many were what one expected in a lecture course given by a world-renowned philosopher: learned men and women with a stake in philosophy and its discontents. Many, like myself, had traveled long distances to be there. But just as one found precise phenomenologists with conceptual apparatuses that could abstract you from everyday experience in the blink of an eye, one also found there ardent cabalists, languorous dilettantes, renegade psychoanalysts, celebrated poets, and journeyman plumbers.

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