Derrida: The Excluded Favorite
Martine Franck/Magnum Photos
Jacques Derrida at the Sorbonne, June, 1979
In May of 1951, at the age of twenty, Jacques Derrida took the entrance exams for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure a second time, having failed, as many students do, in his first attempt the previous year. Fueled by amphetamines after a sleepless week, he choked on the written portion and turned in a blank sheet of paper. The same month, he was awarded a dismal 5 out of 20 on his qualifying exam for a license in philosophy. “The answers are brilliant in the very same way that they are obscure,” the examiner wrote, encapsulating a sentiment about Derrida’s work that has since become a commonplace:
An exercise in virtuosity, with undeniable intelligence, but with no particular relation to the history of philosophy….Can come back when he is prepared to accept the rules and not invent where he needs to be better informed.
In America, Derrida, who died in 2004, left as big a mark on humanities departments as any single thinker of the past forty years—according to a recent survey, only works by Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu are cited more often. But in France, the gatekeepers of higher learning regarded him with ambivalence and, to his devastation, kept him at arm’s length for much of his career. According to a new biography by Benoît Peeters, Derrida, a French Jew from Algiers ill-prepared for the intellectual grind and noxious food of Parisian student life, may even have “contemplated” suicide after his first attempt to get into the École Normale. He finally gained admission on his third try, despite a disastrous performance in his orals. Asked to comment on a passage from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, he later recounted:
I decided that this text was a trap…that everything about it, in its form, was ambiguous, implied, convoluted, complicated, suggested, murmured….I deployed all my resources to uncover a range of meanings fanning out from each sentence, each word.