As biographer of Jacques Derrida, Benoît Peeters admits he ‘often felt dizzy’ with the task of writing the biography Derrida. Yet, in the short time since its appearance in 2010, with its translation to English still to come next year, it has already become one of the classics for those first venturing into Derrida’s thinking. It wasn’t the first book by Peeters; in fact, he’s responsible for many titles, including biographical material about Paul Valéry and Hergé, and he is best known for his series of graphic novels, Les Cités Obscures. Peeters proved himself to be a very conscious biographer.
Too often a biography of a philosopher is considered superfluous. For instance, the influential and current thinker Heidegger thought it is better to read a philosopher than to read anecdotes about him. Of course he had some personal and political reasons to say that… With Derrida, it is completely different. ‘For him both dimensions, purely philosophical or just biographical are prisons, because he thinks you can create philosophical material with autobiographical material, especially with contextual elements. He spoke a lot about his own life, his own experiences and I’ve used those elements, but I have also used a lot of others aspects, like the slow construction of his thought and the reception of his work. Some of these elements he never commented on, so it gives a very different impression than the autobiographical material.’
Luckily, in the case of Derrida’ philosophy a lot of academic readers concur with Peeters about the philosophical merit of this material. ‘I think a philosophy does not come from nothing, it doesn’t come from itself; it is made with a lot of elements. And maybe this context which I provide, the personal and historical context can in a mysterious way help to make him closer, to read in a new way some part of his work.’ Peeters hopes to reach not only the current Derrida readers, but also the readers of tomorrow. ‘Derrida has written a lot of work, some of which has been translated to Dutch or English. But the question for young people discovering Derrida is: how we can read it? Some books are very technical, some are easier, but either way there is a large threshold to surpass. It will be a very important question for the future, you just cannot ask somebody to read eighty books by Derrida. People can get a little bit lost in this gigantic collection, it’s necessary to give some introduction to the context. I hope the biography and its coming translations will help the future readers in getting to know all aspects of Derrida. After all, especially Derrida’s political work can be very useful for current affairs in Europe. I hope therefore that Derrida’s work will receive those new readers and that it will not be preserved just for academics. I think he is a contemporary and very useful thinker, not only an important historical figure. His work is an experience, not just a philosophical one, it is also an artistic and literary experience. I hope the biography shades some light on Derrida, to get past the intimidating collection.’
Peeters is modest about the relevance of his contribution. Derrida is a thinker for whom the interaction with actual life, and especially with his reader, is vital. .It can be useful to look a another book that Peeters wrote in order to grasp just how essential this is for his work. While taking on this challenge – writing the very thorough and extended biography of Derrida, one
of the most elusive contemporary philosophers – Peeters felt compelled to write an additional, smaller, book, Trois ans avec Derrida. ‘I wrote about my own feelings and thoughts about Derrida, day in and day out, whilst working on the biography. Writing about the experience of reading is very important for Derrida, so in a way I was working on a meta-biography. He is always encouraging his reader to be open to the dynamic between the text, with its subject and the reader with his or her experiences.’ It isn’t the most comfortable position for a biographer who tries to be objective, to be forced into introspection and worse into subjectivity, but with Derrida, it does bring new awareness. Peeters wrote his separate work not just to allow himself an outlet for subjectivism: it was in the spirit of Derrida, and moreover, very telling about his work. ‘The strange thing is that he probably would have preferred this small book. The fact that it is my point of view would have made it more interesting for him. Derrida could have looked at the biography and think that some aspects were not as important– or the opposite, more vital, then I had written. Of course he would then tell me that things were… more complicated, so he sees the relativity of a biography.’
Normally most of us would also see the limitations of a biography, because it is just never that simple in real life, but Derrida does do more justice to complications. ‘It is typical for his way of thinking. You can see it in his notion of the secret.’ Derrida held a series of twelve seminars about le secret, and there is the book Il gusto del segreto. ‘It is a concept which is important for him not only privately, but also important in a political sense. For example, Derrida sees no democracy without the right to secrecy. We can’t know for certain what Derrida would have said about Wikileaks, but I’m sure that he wouldn’t have been enthusiastic about it. He is not in favour of total openness. This is part of his personality. He believed in secrets and in that secrets would remain secrets.’ Peeters couldn’t agree more. ‘The first words of my biography are ‘Personne ne saura jamais à partir de quel secret j’écris et que je le dise n’y change rien.’  I used these words as motto, because I was trying to say: this book will never destroy Derrida, there is a part of him that all the facts and everything I write couldn’t ever change. This is probably the most philosophical part of my book, those two lines. My book says a lot, but not all. For me, that is a very important idea. I had this view already before I started writing, but it became more real and even stronger. There is something essential that I can only approach from a certain distance. The smaller book reflects my approach to Derrida. That is what it is in the end, my personal relationship with Derrida. I could have made it six or ten years with Derrida, even then I would not have reached a conclusion on who Derrida is. If you would have written this book, you would have placed the focus on other aspects, you are a different reader of Derrida than I am.’
 Benoît Peeters, Derrida, Flammarion, 2010.
 Trois ans avec Derrida, les carnets d’un biographe, Flammarion, 2010
 Questions de responsabilité I: le secret, a seminar course consisting of 12 parts held between 1991 and 1992
 This is a transcription of a conversation between Maurizio Ferraris and Derrida, it is translated in English: A Taste for the Secret, by Jacques Derrida, Maurizio Ferraris, Giacomo Donis & David Webb, Wiley-Blackwell, 2001.
 Translation: ‘No one will ever know from what secret I write and even if I say it changes nothing.’