Jacques Derrida was born in Algeria on 15 July 1930. His family were petit bourgeois “assimilated” Jews, both part of the French colonial class and yet partial outsiders within it. He grew up in the capital, the seaside city of Algiers. Here the Europeans lived the easygoing empty Mediterranean life revolving between business, café, and beach – so tellingly evoked by the French-Algerian writer and philosopher Albert Camus in The Outsider.
In 1940, when Derrida was just ten years old, Algeria was dragged into World War Two. Although the country never saw fighting, or even so much as a German uniform, the war cast its pestilential shadow over life in the French colony, which had now become a protectorate of the Nazi empire.
Anti-Semitism in wartime Algeria
Again, Camus captures the atmosphere of the period, this time in The Plague. France had been overrun, and French Algeria was governed by the collaborationist Pétain regime. In line with Nazi decrees, in 1942 racial laws were introduced, bringing to the surface a latent anti-Semitism amongst the European population. Derrida was informed by a master at school: “French culture is not made for little Jews.”
It was the privilege of the top pupil to raise the French flag each morning at school; but in Derrida’s case this was reassigned to the second in the class. A quota system was introduced limiting each lycée (high school) to 14 percent Jews. Derrida’s headmaster soon took it upon himself to reduce this quota to 7 percent, and Derrida was expelled. At street level such attitudes degenerated to name-calling and even violence.
The effect of all this on an exceptionally intelligent, sensitive pupil can only be imagined. It is also equally understandable that the man who emerged from this experience should deny the effect of his early life on his later thought. After all, his avowed aim was to interrogate philosophy, not himself. Consequently he remained averse to supplying personal details that appeared to provide a causal link between his life and his work. And with some justice. It should be remembered that the mature survivor thought out his philosophy despite such attempts to sabotage his intellectual and social life.
Belonging to Judaism
For a while, the early teenage Jacques received no education. He was enrolled at the unofficial Jewish lycée but secretly played truant most of the time. He was aware of “belonging” to Judaism; yet though he had grown up assimilated into European society, he now felt he was not a part of it. His painful experience led him to reject racism of any sort.
Upon the resumption of normal education after the war, Derrida became a disruptive pupil, successful only on the playing field. He dreamed of becoming a professional football player. Such an ambition may not have been quite so philistine as it appears. Just over ten years earlier, Camus had played in goal for Racing Algiers. And it was during this period that Derrida overheard, by chance, a talk about Camus on the radio, which attracted him to philosophy. Derrida’s hero was a thinking man of action.
Sartre and amphetamines
Despite his teenage rebellion, Derrida’s exceptional intellect remained unmistakable. At nineteen he was sent to Paris to study for entry to the École Normale Supérieure, the most prestigious higher-education establishment in France. But living alone amidst the grey cold streets of Paris proved an alienating experience after the sea and sunlight of Algiers. Derrida found himself drawn to the nihilistic existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, which was then all the rage in the student cafés of the Left Bank.
As a result of exam pressure, disorientation, and pill-taking (amphetamines and sleeping pills), Derrida walked out after taking his first exam and suffered a minor nervous breakdown. In 1952, at his second attempt, he gained admission to the École Normale Supérieure, where he studied philosophy for the next five years. (Fellow French philosopher, Michel Foucault, had been a student). Here Derrida began a close reading of the two figures who had most influenced Sartre, the German philosophers Husserl and Heidegger.