so longIt’s been a sad week for the Jews. As if the tragic deaths in the Sinai were not enough, we must also deal with the news of two other deaths – that of comedian and actor Rodney Dangerfield (Oct 5, 2004 age 82) and Jacques Derrida (Oct 10 2004 age 74), the father of deconstructionism. Both were Jews, Dangerfield an almost iconic ashkenazic Jew born in Long Island and Derrida a sephardic Jew born in Algeria and living in France. These were extremely different men from almost every perspective – Dangerfield made a living in part from his shlubby appearance while Derrida was described as dashing and handsome, sporting a tanned complexion and well tailored suits.

But what they had in common is interesting.

Both, when young, were victimized for their Jewish background. Dangerfield, born Jacob Cohen, was taunted by classmates while Derrida was expelled from his French school as a result of racial anti-semitic laws passed by the Vichy government. Both were also early failures. Dangerfield began his career in vaudeville as Jack Roy, but he quit that when he married his first wife Joyce Indig. He settled down, had two kids and sold aluminum siding. The marriage failed (twice actually…) and he returned to comedy, this time as Rodney Dangerfield. Derrida for his part, was not much of a student:

He failed his baccalaureate in his first attempt. He twice failed his entrance exam to the École Normal Supérieure, the traditional cradle of French intellectuals, where he was finally admitted in 1952. There he failed the oral portion of his final exams on his first attempt. After graduation in 1956, he studied briefly at Harvard University. For most of the next 30 years, he taught philosophy and logic at both the University of Paris and the École Normal Supérieure. Yet he did not defend his doctoral dissertation until 1980, when he was 50 years old.

30 years to get a Doctorate?? I know some pretty lazy grad students but that’s … impressive. However, I digress.

So where were we… oh yes, I was trying to draw some ridiculous parallels between an American Jewish comedian and a French Jewish Philosopher. So far we have both dead, both have last names that begin with “D” and both were of course, Jews.

Rodney Dangerfield’s catch-phrase was the very well known “I get no respect.” Derrida for his part had many detractors. Deconstructionism, though very popular for a while, was extremely uh… obtuse. His critics pointed out that he never really defined what deconstruction was – and his publications on the subject were not very helpful – Just look at the titles: “Of Grammatology,” “The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond,” and “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce” – what? This all came to a head in 1992 when Cambridge awarded Derrida an honorary degree despite vocal protests from staff members who felt his work was just too, too… uh, incomprehensible and French – “absurd doctrines that deny the distinction between reality and fiction”. Despite all that, deconstruction has influenced linguistics, anthropology, political science and even architecture. Dude even got an obit in the New York Times…

And what if we deconstruct Dangerfield? Of course everyone sees the louche buffoon, the clownish loser. But what was behind all that? What was it that made his shtick so compelling? The self-deprecation masked sadness, fear, rage and sorrow. Like other Jewish comedians of his generation – Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Lenny Bruce and literally thousands of other more obscure vaudevillians, Dangerfield’s comedy reflected a sort of inner wisdom, a defense mechanism against the taunting bullies and the various vagaries of life.

Anyhow, zichronam lebrachah…

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ck

Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.

3 Comments

  • While philosophers on the American side of the pond were always pretty suspicious of Derrida (some of my colleagues say they would invent a grade lower than ‘F’ is he took their philosophy class and handed in any of his ‘work’) I think it was sort of underserved. He was an obviously talented fellow and presented a challenge to modern philosophy of language that has never really been satisfactorily answered: what is the relationship that philosophers of language glibly call ‘reference’? And, as Jerry Fodor is fond of pointing out, if there is such a relation and it is as important as we all think it is, how come there is (and perhaps can be) no science that studies it?

    Whatever you think of the question (I’m inclined to throw it out of court as asking for a definition for a relation that is fairly obviously primitive) it is an interesting one for the philosophy of language and foundational linguistics. Furthermore, while ‘deconstruction’ never really submitted to much rigorous description, Derrida was one of the few to at least try to convey what it is by way of example. And for undefinable things, you can’t do much besides show by example I take it. Reflect, for instance, that when you learnt the word ‘dog’, it wasn’t by a ‘definition’ like ‘quadruped of the canine family.’

    (Many of his followers and students attempted similar examples, with from what I can tell is a rather poor track record, Foucault perhaps being a counter-example but if anyone can understand that stuff, please share with me…The proper standard to judge by is awfully hard to get a hold of and probably open to self-deconstruction anyways!)

  • Rodney Dangerfield taught people a lot about what it takes to stay married — martyr-dom, an appreciation for the absurd, and a sense of humor. Many singles could benefit from modeling themselves after Rodney — he stayed married to his second wife until his death. He’ll be greatly missed.

  • Janice – are you kidding me??? His second wife was his third marriage. His recent biography details his excessive whoring around and drug use. I mean, I know you write for Cosmo 😉 but is that really what you’re advocating??? Stay married but fool around when wifey’s not looking?

    Also, with regards to Derrida, there’s a pretty funny post mortem about his death at Frontpage. Given that its coming from Frontpage, you can imagine the slant, but these guys are pretty funny sometimes so it’s worth a read…

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