Deconstructing Derrida


Martin Heidegger once said that a biography of Aristotle should be simple, saying “He was born. He thought. He died.” The rest, the German philosopher said, was merely anecdote.

Jacques Derrida says that he doesn’t agree with Heidegger’s position, although he can see the point of it. The famed French thinker, the father of deconstruction, admits there is more to his own life than that, even if he is unwilling to fill in a lot of the blanks.

And a good thing, too. Otherwise, filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman would have a big problem in their sprightly, amusing and provocative documentary, “Derrida.” Happily, Derrida is a charming and witty man as well as a frequently difficult thinker and writer, as lucid and engaging in conversation as he is confounding in print. When they aren’t trying too hard to find visual equivalents for Derrida’s more thorny formulations, Dick and Kofman’s film is not merely dense with thought, but entertaining as well.

In truth, Derrida has drawn on his own life experiences in his philosophical and critical writings quite a bit more than most men and women in his chosen field.

That becomes readily apparent in his discussion of his upbringing as a Jewish child in Vichy-controlled Algeria, and in his many references to his mother, clearly one of the central figures in his life. (By contrast, he is amusingly guarded when talking about his marriage.)

When Derrida was 10, the Occupation began in France and the Vichy government was more than happy to oblige their Nazi conquerors by imposing the anti-Semitic “racial laws” of the Reich in French colonies.

In one of the film’s most vivid moments, Derrida quietly recounts the experience of being expelled from school at 10 because he was a Jew.

“They said to us, ‘Go home and your parents will explain,’ ” he says. “The children in the streets threw rocks at us and called us ‘dirty Jews.’ That experience made me sensitive for the rest of my life to racism and anti-Semitism.”

Yet, he readily admits, he was just as uncomfortable in the Jewish school to which he was subsequently sent.

“That was the paradox,” Derrida tells the filmmakers with a smile. “I was ill at ease to be enclosed in the Jewish community.”

Despite his discomfort in a hermetically sealed Jewish world, it is immediately apparent that Derrida absorbed some of the lessons of Jewish thought, even if he doesn’t discuss them directly in the film or in his writings.

In the opening sequence of the film, as the camera speeds over the waters of the Seine, we hear Derrida discourse on the nature of the future. He talks of a split between “la future/the future” and “l’avenir/that which is to come,” the future being something that can be predicted, foreseen, while “l’avenir” is the totally unknowable that will be triggered “by someone who comes, the coming of the Other.”

If he is unaware of the echoes of the Talmudic sages awaiting the arrival of the Messianic age and “Olam Ha-Ba/The World to Come,” I would be surprised.

Of course, the very notion of Derridean “deconstruction,” that the entire world is a series of texts to be deciphered, of reading as an act of “decentering” is not all that different from the ways in which Jewish mystics interpret Torah and, by extension, the world itself.

What, after all, are the more esoteric readings of the Hebrew Bible posited by the Zohar or to be gleaned from Gematria, than attempts to “decenter” our reading of those texts by interpreting them in unconventional ways designed to provoke new insights into the all-too-familiar?

More than that, the Derrida who emerges from Dick and Kofman’s film is a man who, contrary to the claims of his detractors, is passionately committed to an over-arching vision of social justice, a tireless activist against racism and anti-Semitism in its many manifestations. In perhaps the most moving segment of the film, we see Derrida on his first visit to post-apartheid South Africa, seeing the prison cell on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was confined for nearly two decades, then delivering a lecture on the duality of forgiveness and reconciliation that is at once intellectually provocative and emotionally powerful in its opposition between “pure forgiveness,” as Derrida terms it, and the necessities of rebuilding shattered communities. What could be more Jewish than that?
As a piece of filmmaking, “Derrida” veers wildly between a witty but conventional portrait of a controversial figure and an often-strained attempt to find visual correlatives for Derrida’s often dense and abstruse prose.

A scene in which we see Derrida looking at a video of himself looking at a video of himself is, as that phrase suggests, rather labored, but the moment in which he is discussing Kabbalah with an NYU grad student while a technician fumbles with the mike clipped to Derrida’s lapel, rendering the conversation almost incomprehensible in the process, is almost worth the price of admission by itself.

The final result is not as completely satisfying as Dick’s masterful previous feature, “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist,” but “Derrida” is, despite its occasional lapses of judgment, well worth seeing.

“Derrida” will be showing at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) through Nov. 5. (212) 727-8110 or visit the Web site at