Teacher Calls Jacques Derrida’s College Admission Essay on Shakespeare “Quite Incomprehensible” (1951)

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Back­sto­ries of famous­ly accom­plished peo­ple seem incom­plete with­out some past dif­fi­cul­ty or fail­ure to be over­come. In nar­ra­tive terms, these inci­dents pro­vide biogra­phies with their dra­mat­ic ten­sion. We see Abra­ham Lin­coln rise to the high­est office in the land despite the hum­blest of ori­gins; Albert Ein­stein rewrites the­o­ret­i­cal physics against all aca­d­e­m­ic odds, giv­en his sup­posed ear­ly child­hood hand­i­caps. In many cas­es, these sto­ries are apoc­ryphal, or exag­ger­at­ed for effect. But what­ev­er their accu­ra­cy, they always seem to reflect unde­ni­able char­ac­ter traits of the per­son in ques­tion.

In the case of influ­en­tial philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da, prog­en­i­tor of the both beloved and reviled crit­i­cal the­o­ry known as “Decon­struc­tion,” the sto­ries of aca­d­e­m­ic strug­gle and great men­tal suf­fer­ing are well-doc­u­ment­ed. Fur­ther­more, their details accord per­fect­ly well with the mature thinker who, remarks the site Crit­i­cal The­o­ry, “can’t answer a sim­ple god-damned ques­tion.” The good-natured snark on dis­play in this descrip­tion more or less sums up the feed­back Der­ri­da received dur­ing some for­ma­tive years of school­ing while he pre­pared for his entrance exams to France’s uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem in 1951 at the age of 20.

Der­ri­da may have “left as big a mark on human­i­ties depart­ments as any sin­gle thinker of the past forty years,” writes The New York Review of Books, but dur­ing this peri­od of his life, he failed his exams twice before final­ly gain­ing admit­tance. Once, he “choked 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.” One essay he sub­mit­ted on Shake­speare, writ­ten in Eng­lish (above), received a 10 out of 20. The feed­back from Derrida’s instruc­tor will sound very famil­iar to per­plexed read­ers of his work. “Quite unin­tel­li­gi­ble,” writes the eval­u­a­tor in one mar­gin­al com­ment. The main com­ment at the top of the paper reads in part:

In this essay you seem to be con­stant­ly on the verge of some­thing inter­est­ing but, some­what, you always fail to explain it clear­ly. A few para­graphs are indeed total­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble.

Anoth­er exam­in­er—points out the NYRB—left a com­ment on his 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.

As it turns out, Der­ri­da was not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the rules, but in invent­ing a new method. Even if his “apos­ta­sy” caused him great men­tal anguish—“nausea, insom­nia, exhaus­tion, and despair” (all nor­mal fea­tures of any high­er edu­ca­tion­al experience)—it’s prob­a­bly fair to say he could not do oth­er­wise. Although his intel­lec­tu­al biog­ra­phy, like the his­to­ry of any revered fig­ure, is unlike­ly to offer a blue­print for suc­cess, there is per­haps at least one les­son we may draw: What­ev­er the dif­fi­cul­ties, you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off just being your­self.

via Crit­i­cal The­o­ry

Relat­ed Con­tent:

130+ Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

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Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • Mark says:

    Erm, that illus­tra­tion… How come the writ­ing’s in Eng­lish? Why is it not attrib­uted?

  • e says:

    It’s in Eng­lish because it’s an Eng­lish class…
    By the way, 10/20 isn’t too bad a grade in classe pré­pa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classe_pr%C3%A9paratoire_aux_grandes_%C3%A9coles).

  • Kevin says:

    Ummm.… It is an Eng­lish essay–as is stat­ed in the arti­cle. Der­ri­da’s name is in the upper left cor­ner and the assign­ment “Eng­lish essay” is clear­ly stat­ed in the writ­ten text.

  • Alfa says:

    You can only get those note­books in France. Helps the French to write with reg­u­lar x heights and per­fect lead­ing.

    Does­n’t guar­an­tee per­fect log­ic, though. ‘Seyes quadrillage’ is what you’re look­ing for. It already sounds like any­thing writ­ten on it deserves a doc­tor­ate.


  • Alan says:

    Cer­tain­ly nobody would be bet­ter off try­ing to be Der­ri­da.

  • Sem says:

    The man makes no sense at all. Total Fraud.

  • Justin says:

    You’re wrong.

  • jack says:

    Der­ri­da has been rec­og­nized by numer­ous read­ing uni­ver­si­ties in the world as doc­tor hon­oris causa. Total fraud? What have you, “Sem,” pray tell, writ­ten or even read in his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy? Do you under­stand, say, Kant? Does that makes sense to you? Or Husserl? Or Spin­oza? Etc. You get my drift.

  • Jack says:

    Der­ri­da has been rec­og­nized by numer­ous lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties in the world as doc­tor hon­oris causa. He has been pub­lished and trans­lat­ed in uni­ver­si­ty press­es around the world prob­a­bly more than any oth­er 20 cen­tu­ry philoso­pher. “Total fraud?” Not even par­tial fraud? Just plain total? What have you, “Sem,” above, pray tell, writ­ten or even read in his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy? Do you under­stand, say, Kant? Does that makes sense to you? Or Husserl? Or Spin­oza? Etc. You get my drift. You have to be acquaint­ed with the philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion Der­ri­da wrote about in order to be able to com­pre­hend him. Like in any oth­er intel­lec­tu­al dis­ci­pline. But for that you have to under­stand the word dis­ci­pline.

  • Merryjest says:

    Sev­er­al years too late a reply, but I’m sur­prised a philo­soph­i­cal emi­nence would resort to an argu­ment um ad vere­cun­di­am. They usu­al­ly weed that out of you in the first year.

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