By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Forty-five minutes before the lecture was scheduled to begin, two film crews set up shop. Then came the students en masse, making pit stops at the still-unoccupied lectern to place recording devices of varying shapes, sizes, and vintages. (Onethere every weekwas so large and bulky it looked like the phones used in World War II films.) By 4:45 no seats were left; students had staked out both the aisles. By 4:50, the room was a fire marshal's nightmare. By 4:55, auditors had camped out on every bit of available floor space around the podium. At 5:00, he arrived.
He was never noticeably nervous, and he was always markedly businesslike. In his efforts to procure a still-larger auditorium he would pass around a book for everyone to signwhich would take over half an hour to run its course. He had on every occasion a lot of material he wished to present and spared us avuncular anecdotes not rare in Parisian philosophy seminars, in which the speaker fondly recalled the time he and Sartre didn't put too fine a point on it. Derrida's lectures were meticulously prepared and dynamically read. More surprising, they were funny. The steep roads of his thought were not always easy to follow, but they were, even at their most recondite, rivetingnot just for the conceptual strength and linguistic agility of the speaker, but also for the way that he would pounce on new ideas as if they were scurrying about at his feet, and for the excited pitch his voice would reach when he had at last got hold of them.
In the early years of the 20th century, members of Paris's cultural elite would send away a servant every Friday afternoon on a special mission. After traversing the bustling city, the servants would convene in the main auditorium of a large gated building in the center of Paris. There they would wait. A few hours later, their employers would come and take their places. And then a small man with piercing eyes and an amicable smile would enter the auditorium: the most famous philosopher in the world, Henri Bergson. Bergson's friend William James once said of hearing him speak that "it is like the breath of the morning and the song of the birds." This was, however, not the only note heard by intellectuals of the day. T.S. Eliot went to no small pains to energetically denounce the "epidemic" that was "Bergsonism." The popular Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck suggested that Bergson was quite simply "the most dangerous man in the world." The influential French author Julien Benda declared that he would willingly kill him if he thought death would limit his influence.
Just as the most famous philosopher in the world during the opening decades of the 20th century was a small, handsome, Jewish Frenchman criticized for a philosophy with "irrational" elements, so too was the most famous philosopher of its closing decades. During the years when his books and person made their mysterious mark upon my life, Derrida was often denounced as a dangerous man and his thought as a nihilistic epidemic. But we who gathered together to hear him speak could not square this threat with the bright-eyed man with the birdlike voice who stood before us.
Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.