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He could drive even O.C. to abstraction

Special to The Times

Each spring until the last, for nearly 20 years, Jacques Derrida left Paris to lecture at UC Irvine.

The Orange County planned community couldn’t help but seem an unlikely home for a radical French intellectual. And yet, as a graduate student at UC Irvine, I always thought Derrida’s presence there made a kind of sense. The epicenter of the Orange County housing boom, Irvine is constantly being destroyed and re-created. Again and again, familiar sites are bulldozed and replaced by buildings so sparkling new they appear never to have suffered the indignity of being built. This perpetual making and unmaking is what is meant by “deconstruction.” Or is it? Alas, we will never know for certain. Derrida died still refusing to define the word -- movement, method, theory, process? -- with which his name was synonymous.

For Derrida’s followers, “deconstruction” was like a code word in reverse. Only his critics spoke it aloud. I was at Irvine in the early ‘90s, when, as his recent obituaries have taken pains to point out, Derrida’s influence was on the wane. Poststructuralism no longer in vogue, university literature departments were in thrall to more overtly political movements like Cultural Studies and the New Historicism. Not long before, it was revealed that Derrida’s late friend and advocate, Paul de Man, had written for a collaborationist publication during World War II -- a fact upon which Derrida’s adversaries seized to make a tenuous but widely embraced connection between deconstruction and fascism. Irvine was deconstruction’s last stand. The proud but beleaguered Derrida was like an aging Napoleon in exile; he seemed to be biding time in Irvine, plotting his return to power with his faithful but shrinking retinue.

Nonetheless, the California sunshine suited the Algerian-born Jew. Tan, white-haired and well dressed, Derrida was known at UCI for being fond of the beach -- and of beautiful women. His reputation may have diminished during his tenure at Irvine, but he became increasingly famous until he achieved the ultimate California dream and became, literally, a movie star. Instead of his countless books, it was the documentary “Derrida” that would serve for many as an introduction to the man who had spent so much of his career defending the priority of text over image. That is, the theoretical priority.

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My dinner with Jacques

I first met Derrida not in Irvine but in Paris. It was the summer after my sophomore year at Yale -- where, like so many Yale undergraduates, I had fallen prey to the seductions of poststructuralist theory.

At the time, I was dating someone who made it a point to cultivate the friendship of famous intellectuals. Thus I found myself being chauffeured by Derrida from Paris to his home in Ris-Orangis, a place not unlike Irvine as Paris suburbs go. The house felt surprisingly familiar; it could have been the home of any American academic. The meal prepared by Derrida’s wife, Marguerite, a psychoanalyst, even included a caprese salad and tabbouleh, two dishes then de rigueur in this country for a certain cultural class.

Among the other guests were several visiting literature professors, one of whom was freshly arrived from a conference on D.H. Lawrence, and dinner soon devolved into a debate about the relative merits of Lawrence, that English exponent of free love, and Jean Genet, the French exponent of prisoner love. It was heady conversation, not to mention company, for a 19-year-old who could barely speak French, but I was determined to contribute.

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I knew that Genet was a particular subject of Derrida’s, and I sensed I might win points by disparaging Lawrence. I was right. Flushed with success, I remained silent for the rest of the evening.

After I graduated from Yale, I followed what was by then a well-trod path from New Haven to Irvine. But when I enrolled in Derrida’s seminar, I didn’t let on that I had met him before. I was afraid that he wouldn’t recognize me. Or worse, that he would speak to me in French. It wasn’t difficult to keep my distance; his seminars were crowded, his lectures attended by hundreds. Hearing Derrida lecture was not dissimilar to reading one of his essays -- at once stupefying, exhilarating and numbingly repetitive.

Almost always he began with a metaphor that for some reason intrigued him, usually one that recurs in works by multiple authors (the beast or “leviathan” in political philosophy, for instance), and then poked and prodded the metaphor, teasing it until it revealed its secret, or rather until it revealed its secretiveness, its “unknowability,” in Derridian terms, its resistance to the tyrannical rule of the concept. At times, I felt that Derrida was a machine: Drop a metaphor in the slot and watch it go through the same series of motions over and over until it tumbles out the other end, now turned inside out, everything and nothing revealed.

Once, while Derrida was lecturing, I sat bolt upright, realizing that I was about to enter deep REM. I glanced over the sea of students around me -- all bent over, assiduously taking notes. What would the girl in front of me do, I wondered, if I were to lean over and without warning lick the nape of her neck? It was a fantasy more silly than perverse, and it made me giggle. I tried to stifle my laughter. But every time I succeeded, I spotted another neck and imagined licking it and I would laugh louder, until even Derrida noticed. I was mortified. In his writing, Derrida might have celebrated laughter and excess, but he certainly didn’t expect them from his students.

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Even among his devotees Derrida was an ambivalent figure. In a moment of frustration, my grad school roommate, as faithful a Derrida student as I knew, shot an arrow through a first edition of one of Derrida’s more inscrutable books, “Glas” (roughly “Death Knell.”) We placed the impaled volume back on the shelf and kept it as an ironic artwork. Yet the charge that Derrida’s work represented an attack on what some call the Great Books was to my mind always ridiculous.

Derrida’s major contribution, as I understand it, was to highlight the literary dimension of philosophy, and likewise to reveal the philosophical significance of literature -- a far cry from declaring either literature or philosophy dead. On the contrary, deconstruction introduced philosophy to a whole new generation of literature students. (Admittedly, its place in philosophy departments has been more problematic.) Derrida inspired us to read the very texts he was accused of dishonoring. What teenager would otherwise have read Rousseau or Descartes? Perhaps it is unfortunate that we learned to unravel a tradition before we learned it as whole cloth. But we might not otherwise have learned it at all.

In lieu of a term paper

In the end, as I discovered to my dismay, Derrida was a traditionalist. In my last year at Irvine, his seminar concerned the notion of remains, or “les restes,” a topic that covered everything from recycling to funeral ashes to defecation. In lieu of a term paper, I made a video for Derrida, which he took back with him to France. He was unable to watch the video, and a long correspondence ensued. At first, it seemed the problem had to do with the format of the tape. But after we’d tried VHS, Beta and PAL, we decided we’d wait until he was back in Irvine and I could show him the tape. There I discovered the true nature of the problem. It was like a bad joke: Here he was, the smartest man in the world, and he couldn’t operate a VCR.

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The video consisted of clips from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” the chocolate river scene, for example, paired with diaper and laxative commercials, as well as with readings from various Marxists and psychoanalysts. It was the kind of sophomoric exercise I’d resisted as an undergraduate, and I was embarrassed by it, but also pleased. I felt the video was successful in making an argument relevant to the themes of Derrida’s class. After watching the video, Derrida looked uncomfortable and strangely introspective. Finally, he told me he couldn’t give me credit for it. In order to pass his class, I would have to write a conventional paper.

I was, frankly, stunned, and must not have hidden my reaction very well, because he seemed to feel a need to explain himself. “Perhaps,” he admitted, suddenly moving into French, “despite certain thoughts of mine, I am more conservative than one would expect.” Then, as if to lessen the blow, he asked if I’d ever considered going into “the business.” Although I was raised in Hollywood, it took me a moment to realize he meant the movie business.

Shortly afterward, I left academia and joined “the business,” just as he suggested. I’ve worked as a screenwriter ever since. But it was my association with Derrida that would put my face on the big screen. A couple of years ago, I kept getting messages from friends that they’d seen me in a movie. I had no idea what movie they were talking about. Then I saw the Derrida documentary. My appearance is brief. But if you pay attention you can see me, nodding, like all the other earnest graduate students, as Derrida speaks on the occasion of the installation of his archives at UC Irvine. The archives are still there, by the way, and they’re quite copious.

Raphael Simon has written for film and television, including the Nickelodeon series “Rocket Power.” His essay “Israel 90210" is published in “Mentsh: On Being Jewish and Queer.”

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