It’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 Ã‰cole Normal SupÃ©rieure, 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 Ã‰cole Normal SupÃ©rieure. 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…