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.
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.
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. (One—there every week—was 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 sign—which 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, riveting—not 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.