birth and intellectual development…

Birth and Intellectual Development
from “A ‘Madness’ Must Watch Over Thinking” pp. 339-343

Q.: Let us imagine your future biographer. One may suppose he will write, in a lazy repetition of the public record: Jacques Derrida was born July I5, I930, in El Biar, near Algiers. It is up to you perhaps to oppose this biological birth with your true birth, the one that would proceed from that private or public event in which you really became yourself.

J.D.: For starters, that’s a bit too much. You go so far as to say: “it is up to you [il vous revient] ” to say when you are born. No, if there is anything that cannot be “up to me,” then this is it, whether we’re talking about what you call “biological birth” transferred to the objectivity of the public record, or “true birth.” “I was born”: this is one of the most singular expressions I know, especially in its French grammatical form. If the interview form lent itself to it, I would prefer, instead of answering you directly, to begin an interminable analysis of the phrase “je, je suis, je suis nè” in which the tense is not given. Anxiety will never be dispelled on this subject, for the event that is thereby designated can herald itself in me only in the future: “I am (not yet) born,” but the future has the form of a past which I will never have witnessed and which for this reason remains always promised–and moreover also multiple. Who ever said that one was born just once? But how can one deny that through all the different promised births, it is a single and same time, the unique time, that insists and that is repeated forever? This is a little what is being recounted in Circumfession. “I am not yet born” because the moment that decided my nameable identity was taken away from me. Everything is arranged so that it be this way, this is what is called culture. Thus, through so many different relays, one can only try to recapture this theft or this institution which was able to, which had to take place more than once. But however iterable and divisible it remains, the “only once” resists.

Q.: Do you mean to say that you do not want to have any identity?

J.D.: On the contrary, I do, like everyone else. But by turning around this impossible thing, and which no doubt I also resist, the “I” constitutes the very form of resistance. Each time this identity announces itself, each time a belonging circumscribes me, if I may put it this way, someone or something cries: Look out for the trap, you’re caught. Take off, get free, disengage yourself. Your engagement is elsewhere. Not very original, is it’?

Q.: Is the work you do aimed at refinding this identity?

J.D.: No doubt, but the gesture that tries to refind of itself distances, it distances itself again. One ought to be able to formalize the law of this insurmountable gap. This is a little what I am always doing. Identification is a difference to itself, a difference with/of itself. Thus with, without, and except itself. The circle of the return to birth can only remain open, but this is at once a chance, a sign of life, and a wound. If it closed in on birth, on a plenitude of the utterance or the knowledge that says “I am born,” that would be death.

Q.: What relation should one see between the first birth and this other birth that would be your arrival in France, your studies at the lycée Louis-le-Grand, the khâgne, an inscription in a completely other world.?

J.D.: In Algeria, I had begun, let’s say, to “get into” literature and philosophy. I dreamed of writing–and already models were instructing the dream, a certain language governed it, and certain figures and names. It’s like circumcision, you know, it begins before you do. Very early I read Gide, Nietzsche, Valéry, in ninth or tenth grade. Gide even earlier no doubt: admiration, fascination, cult, fetishism. I no longer know what remains of all this. I remember a young teacher, a redhead, whose name was Lefèvre; he came from the Mètropole, which, in the eyes of us young pieds-noirs who were a little tough, made him somewhat ridiculous and naive. He sang the praises of the state of love and Les nourritures terrestres. I would have learned this book by heart if I could have. No doubt, like every adolescent, I admired its fervor, the lyricism of its declarations of war on religion and families (I probably always translated “I hated the home, families, every place where man thinks he can find rest” into a simple “I am not part of the family”). For me it was a manifesto or a Bible: at once religious and neo-Nietzschean, sensualist, immoralist, and especially very Algerian, as you know. I remember the hymn to the Sahel, to Blida, and to the fruits of the Jardin d’Essai. I read all of Gide, and probably L’immoraliste sent me to Nietzsche, which I doubtless understood very badly, and Nietzsche, oddly enough, led me in the direction of Rousseau, the Rousseau of the Rêveries. I remember I became the stage for the great argument between Nietzsche and Rousseau and I was the extra ready to take on all the roles. I loved, precisely, what Gide says about Proteus, I identified naively with him who identified, if that’s possible, with Proteus. It was the end of the war (“my” Algeria was basically almost constantly at war, because the first uprisings, and thus first portents of the Algerian war, were suppressed at the end of the Second World War). Paris being occupied in 1943-44, the liberated Algiers became a sort of literary capital. Gide was often in North Africa, Camus was talked about a lot, new literary journals and new publishers sprang up everywhere. All of this fascinated me. I wrote some bad poetry that I published in North African journals, I kept a “private diary.” But even as I withdrew into this reading or other solitary activities, well, in a dissociated, juxtaposed way, I also led the life of a kind of young hooligan, in a “gang” that was interested more in soccer or track than in studying. In my last two years at the lycée, I began to read Bergson and Sartre, who were very important to me for what could be called a philosophical “training,” in any case at its beginnings.

Q.: Was it you or your parents who wanted you to go to the Ecole Normale?

J.D.: My parents didn’t know what it was. Neither did I, even when I enrolled in hypokhâgne. The next year, when I began khâgne at Louis-le-Grand, it was quite simply the first trip I made in my life, at nineteen years of age. I had never left El Biar, in the suburbs of Algiers. The boarding-school experience in Paris was very hard, I didn’t put up with it very well. I was sick all the time, or in any case frail, on the, edge of a nervous breakdown.

Q.: Until you got to the Ecole Normale?

J.D.: Yes. Those were the most difficult, most threatening years. In part, it had to do with a kind of exile, in part with the monstrous torture of the national competitions in the French system. With competitions like those of the Ecole Normale and the agrégation, rnany who found themselves in my situation had the impression of risking everything in this horrible machine or of awaiting a life or death sentence. Failure meant a return to Algiers in a state of absolute precariousness–and I didn’t want to go back to Algeria once and for all (both because I felt that I could never “write” while living “at home” and already for political reasons; from the early ’50s colonial politics and first of all colonial society had become unbearable for me). These years of khâgne and the Ecole Normale were thus an ordeal (discouragement, despair-failures on the exams themselves: nothing was handed to me on the first try).

Q.: And yet you remained for a long time at the Ecole Normale?

J. D.: This paradox has not escaped you; there would no doubt be a lot to say about that. I have always had “school sickness,” as others have seasickness. I cried when it was time to go back to school long after I was old enough to be ashamed of such behavior. Still today, I cannot cross the threshold of a teaching institution (for example the Ecole Normale, where I taught for twenty years, or the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, where I have been teaching for six years) without physical symptoms (I mean in my chest and my stomach) of discomfort or anxiety. And yet, it’s true, I have never left school in general, I stayed at the Ecole Normale for almost thirty years altogether. I must suffer also from “school sickness” in the sense this time of homesickness.

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~ by aikaterine on June 11, 2007.

One Response to “birth and intellectual development…”

  1. Thank you for the excerpt.
    …I don’t understand Derrida or Deleuze. Yet, somehow, I keep feeling that they will say something worth paying attention to.

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