Life with the Father of Deconstructionism

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Jacques Derrida is very not dead. In fact, he's a little too alive, basking in the attention of young female groupies, scrambling for his keys, checking out his library archive and standing in front of his closet debating which designer's jacket to wear to a dinner party. For the past five years, the world's most famous living philosopher, author of such Gitanes-and-black-turtleneck classics as Of Grammatology, allowed a camera to follow him around in order to make Derrida, a documentary that demonstrates, if nothing else, that The Osbournes' celebrity reality-show virus has spread all the way up to the top of the culture.

If Derrida was going to do this to himself, I figured he had to go the full Hollywood-debasement route and talk to me. Unfortunately, he had already sent away a reporter from the New York Times, hung up on the Q&A interviewer from the New York Times Magazine after two questions and refused all other interviews. I, however, am the Michael Moore of deconstructionism. I entered the back office of Manhattan's Film Forum, where the documentary was being shown. I was introduced to Derrida not as a reporter but as a "friend of the Film Forum." When I brought out my "friend of the Film Forum" notebook, Derrida got upset. He felt turning our discussion into an interview would ruin it.

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After he was offered banana bread, however, and tried it for the first time, he loved it so much that he pointed to me and said, "You can write that. I love banana bread." So I did, not because it's interesting but because he was motioning somewhat threateningly for a 72-year-old Frenchman. Then he told me I could ask him "facts." I reminded him that his writing argues that facts don't exist, which didn't go over well. Deconstructionist jokes, it turns out, have a really high bar.

The fact limitation didn't really bother me, since all I really wanted to ask him about was his hair. Derrida has impossibly spiky yet pouffy, radiantly snow white Beckett-meets-punk-rocker hair. There had to be some major product here, and I wanted to find out what kind. "Nothing. Just natural," he told me. "When I was young, I had beautiful hair: blue black and thick. Now I complain that it is white and thin. I'm nostalgic about my hair, so I'm flattered when you say you like it. It got white when I turned 40." Then he opened up like Kant being asked about the categorical imperative. Hair flattery works on everybody.

Derrida, my philosophical inquiry unearthed, doesn't have a favorite movie, but he really likes The Godfather. "I have watched The Godfather 10 times. I must watch whenever it's on," he said. He hates when people ask him to be smart about random topics, as when a woman from the BBC asked him whether the characters on the Seinfeld sitcom practice deconstructionism. This was especially difficult because he was unfamiliar not only with Seinfeld but also with the word sitcom. Everyone wants him to say something brilliant on love or war or death. "It's frustrating. Especially when you have to improvise," he said. I told him he should try writing for TIME.

Pushing the boundaries of the fact limitation, I asked him why he made the documentary. He replied that he had said no four times but that the filmmakers misunderstood him the last time. When I pushed the question of why he would let the filmmakers follow him around, letting them use everything except one would-be kick-ass breakfast scene in which he chokes on yogurt, he said, "It's not an imperative, it's an experience. Experience cannot be avoided."

Leaving the room to go onstage for a brief, post-screening Q&A with the audience, Derrida ran a hand through his hair to straighten it. He talked about how I had made him conscious of his hair. Deconstructionists can't let anything go. At the discussion, someone asked Derrida what kind of music he likes, and he revealed his love for free jazz and told a really long story about how Ornette Coleman once got him to read onstage during a show. "His fans were so unhappy they started booing. It was a very unhappy event. It was a very painful experience," he said. "But it was in the paper the next day, so it was a happy ending."

In the end, everyone, even the smartest people in the world, cannot help talking about themselves. The media may be vultures who shove tape recorders at families of murder victims, but the families almost always want to talk. Derrida didn't want to make a movie or talk to TIME or tell people that he likes jazz or that he read at a concert, but he couldn't help it. Despite the fact that he can say whatever he wants in his chosen medium — really hard-to-read books that will be read forever — he still can't stop himself at any given moment. It's not megalomania or vanity but a hard-wired human need to express yourself. At least, that's my excuse for writing all these narcissistic columns. That, and I'd love to get a movie deal going.