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An Event, Perhaps: a letter from the Editor

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The first time Peter Salmon and I spoke he told me the story of the two Jacques - Derrida and Lacan- meeting at the salad bar of a Baltimore conference hotel, Lacan holding a plate of coleslaw. According to one account, they brusquely discussed the nature of philosophy. In Derrida’s version, Lacan shared his concerns about the use of glue in the binding of his new work, Ecrits, worrying that the pages might crack and fall out. It is in such details that the lives of great thinkers become more tangible, more human, and such a commitment to that task, makes An Event, Perhaps such a brilliant introduction to Derrida and his thinking. Peter, who was already a highly-acclaimed novelist, seemed to understand what such an account needed.

A few years ago, we published Grand Hotel Abyss: the Lives of the Frankfurt School, by Stuart Jeffries, which attempted to illuminate the thinking of such huge figures as Adorno, Benjamin, Horkheimer and Marcuse, through their interweaving lives. Through the work of biography, thinking, history and action are dynamically charged. And what better subject to follow the Frankfurt School than Derrida. Both are often seen as impenetrable, knotty, rarified and potentially dangerous. However, as an early review in Prospect by Julian Baggini notes, An Event, Perhaps steps up to the challenge: ‘Derrida’s life story provides a frame and background for an intellectual biography of his ideas and their development. In the process it also serves as one of the clearest introductions to 20th-century continental philosophy available.’

Who was Jacques Derrida? And why does he still matter today? Born Jackie, named after a character in a Charlie Chaplin movie, the young boy grew up as a Jew in Algeria. As a pupil, he encountered prejudice, and was forced to eave to continue his education. In Paris, changing his name to Jacques, he still experienced a series of failures, low marks and intellectual snobbery. Foucault noted of Derrida’s thesis: “Well, it’s either an F or an A+.” But he persevered and made his reputation at the Baltimore conference, to which he was only invited, late, because he would ‘definitely turn up’. His lecture was truly ground breaking, tearing at the foundations of structuralism, and launching his career as a truly revolutionary thinker.

Peter Salmon tells this story, but also places the philosophy of deconstruction within the context of post-war Parisian life, populated with Lacan, Barthes, Althusser, De Beauvoir, Foucault, Genet. And, as Derrida’s influence started to be felt across the globe, explores his friendships and rivalries, debates and movie roles. Salmon also disassembles the myths that Derrida was the father of ‘post-truth’, the sower of the contemporary plagues of cultural relativism. Instead, Salmon shows that Derrida was focussed on a singular ethical standpoint that he turned to a variety of subjects: language, friendship, religion and ghosts.

When Peter and I started to talk about what this book might be, we both wanted to see whether we could make Derrida’s ideas more accessible through the life. Derrida himself might have laughed at the futility of the project. But we believe that it is a coruscating addition to our list, for general readers as well as those who have worked hard to get through ‘Of Grammatology’.

Leo Hollis, Verso Editor

London, 2020.

An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida is one of our October Book Club reads: a carefully curated selection of books that we think are essential and necessary reading. Find out more about our Book Club here.

Accessible, provocative and beautifully written, An Event, Perhaps will introduce a new readership to the life and work of a philosopher whose influence over the way we think will continue long into the twenty-first century.