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The Interpreters of Maladies | The Nation

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The Interpreters of Maladies

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The renaissance of French-Algerian Judaism came to a sudden end in 1940, with the rise of Vichy. Goaded by anti-Semitic pieds noirs, the Vichy authorities in Algeria annulled the Crémieux Decrees, and within a year Derrida was expelled from school. "French culture is not made for little Jews," his teacher informed him. Abandoned by the European community, the Derridas received comfort from their Muslim neighbors, who, unlike many colonized peoples and to their lasting credit, refused to ally themselves with the Axis powers against their colonial masters; Derrida never forgot this experience, which gave him a more nuanced, less fatalistic perspective on Arab-Jewish relations than that of many of his co-religionists in France.

Derrida was often misunderstood, but rarely worse than in his New York Times obituary. Ross Benjamin explains, in a web-only feature.

About the Author

Adam Shatz
Adam Shatz is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books and a former literary editor of The Nation. He has...

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Away from school, the young man developed a passion for philosophy, partly in rebellion against the synagogue he attended with his parents:

There were aspects of Judaism I loved--the music, for instance. Nonetheless, I started resisting religion as a young adolescent, not in the name of atheism, but because...religion as it was practiced in my family...struck me as thoughtless, just blind repetitions.... Then when I was 13, I read Nietzsche for the first time, and though I didn't understand him completely, he made a big impression on me. The diary I kept then was filled with quotations from Nietzsche and Rousseau, who was my other god at the time.

After the Allies landed in Algiers, Derrida resumed his education, and the Crémieux Decrees were restored. Yet life in French Algeria was never the same again. Having contributed to the defeat of fascism as soldiers in De Gaulle's Free French Forces, Algeria's Muslims began to rebel against the French occupation of their own country. The first clashes took place on V-Day, 1945, when dozens of Europeans died in pro-independence demonstrations. With help from pied noir "ultras," the French Army proceeded to slaughter tens of thousands of Muslims in the towns of Sétif and Guelma--"the first serious outbursts heralding the Algerian war" that broke out nine years later, as Derrida recalled. Following the 1945 massacres, Algerian politics increasingly hinged on a zero-sum struggle between settlers and natives--on what Derrida famously called a "binary opposition."

Where did Jews like the Derridas fit into this equation? After all, they had benefited from assimilation, only to be cruelly betrayed by Algeria's French population; and though they were "natives," not colons, they were not Muslims, and they had come to identify fervently with French republicanism. Apart from a tiny minority of Algerian-Jewish radicals who joined the FLN, most Jews either sided with the European community or adopted an impossible position of neutrality. When Algeria achieved independence in 1962, Derrida's family joined the general exodus of Jews to France.

Derrida was already in Paris, making a name for himself as a daring interpreter of Husserl and Heidegger. Still, it is more than possible that his suspicion of binary oppositions (between writing and speech, philosophy and literature, self and other, and, much to the chagrin of his colleagues in philosophy, sense and nonsense) arose from his family's liminal status in colonial Algeria. It is also likely that Derrida's sensitivity to the contradictions of even the most stable systems arose from having witnessed, in his youth, the transformation of an entire way of life that had once seemed eternal. What, in a 1966 lecture at Johns Hopkins, he would call "play"--code for the subtle shifts and realignments that subvert every structure, whether of thought, language, government or economy--had exposed the instability of Algérie Française and would ultimately trigger a "rupture" of historic proportions.

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