One of the perks of my job as a vice provost at Stanford University was attending events that honored visiting celebrities and dignitaries, among them the king of Tonga and the Dalai Lama. But the 2002 dinner honoring Jacques Derrida, the culmination of a two-day Stanford conference titled “Cruelty, Death Penalty, the ‘Return of the Religious,’ with Jacques Derrida” was the most memorable, and not because he was considered one of the greatest philosophers of our time. In fact, I had no idea who the man was. I was, after all, a recently retired state court judge whose interests veered primarily toward things legal.
It was Florence, my partner of many years, who informed me that Jacques Derrida was the eminent French philosopher who had introduced the concept of deconstructionism. When I asked her what that meant, she shrugged her shoulders and suggested that I ask Joan. Of course! Joan, our across-the-street neighbor, had a PhD in philosophy. I called Joan and asked her to please explain Derrida’s philosophy, in layperson’s terms.
“I have no idea,” she quickly responded. “But I do have a book that might help.”
The book, a paperback titled Introducing Derrida, with a cartoonlike drawing of Derrida on the cover, was an illustrated version of his philosophy, along the lines of a graphic novel. I opened to a random page and read, For a deconstructive operation, possibility would rather be the danger, the danger of becoming an available set of rule-governed procedures, methods, accessible approaches. The interest of deconstruction, of such force and desire as it may have, is a certain experience of the impossible. I promptly closed the book and concluded that reading any further would be a certain experience of the impossible for me.
As we drove to the dinner, Florence cautioned, “You’re not going to understand a word he says.” I wouldn’t have been the first. Nearly 20 philosophers from around the world had published a letter in which they claimed that Derrida’s writing was incomprehensible and his major claims either trivial or false. Still, Derrida remained a powerful force in the philosophical arena.
Then I leaned in and asked him, ‘Who does your hair?’
Dinner was at Iberia, a Basque restaurant in Menlo Park, just a mile or two from the university. Along with 30 or so other guests, we were ushered into a dining room that featured a long, cloth-covered head table (think The Last Supper) set with elegant silverware, plates, and glasses. And there he was, a handsome man with a glorious mane of white hair, framing a beautiful brown complexion. I immediately recognized him; the caricature on the book cover was a dead ringer. He sat at the center of the table, his chin resting in his hands. The guests, who now filled the table save the two seats directly across from Derrida, chatted with one another, saying not a word to him. This was not entirely surprising. After all, what does one say to the God of Deconstruction? The dinner guests were understandably intimidated; Derrida was understandably bored.
My curiosity about the man far outweighed any concern that I might have harbored about appearing foolish, so Florence and I took the hot seats across from him and introduced ourselves. Then I leaned in and asked him, “Who does your hair? You have such great hair! Do you let anyone cut it?”
“Why, thank you,” Derrida responded. “I only let one person cut it. He’s in France. No one else do I permit to cut my hair.” Much to my pleasure, he added, “Please, call me Jacques.”
With that, our conversation gathered steam. “What do you call your hairstyle?” he asked me. I was wearing a short Afro at the time. I told him about the different styles in which I had worn my hair over the years—straightened, short dreadlocks, a large Afro, a Box, braids, and cornrows—and about the importance of hair in the lives of Black women. I also noted that, like him, I permitted only one person to cut my hair. After having fully explored the subject of our respective coifs, Jacques appeared ready for more.
“What time were you born?” I asked. At this point, everyone at the table was listening.
“I was born in the early morning into a family of very poor Sephardic Jews in Algeria. We had dirt floors in our home. I remember riding in a cart drawn by a donkey.” He paused reflectively for a moment, and then continued, “My mother loved to play poker. She was addicted to it. When she was in labor with me, she refused to stop playing until the last minute. My mother taught me to play poker before I could read or write. To this day, I hate the game. I never play it.”
“When did you move to France?” I asked.
“My family emigrated to France after World War II,” he said.
“Do you have siblings? Are they intellectuals like you?” I queried.
“I have a brother and a sister. I’m a middle child. My brother is a pharmacist, and my sister is a housewife. Neither of my parents were intellectuals,” he responded.
“Oh,” I interjected. “So, you’re a freak!”
Jacques chuckled, “Yes, I suppose that I am.”
“So,” I said, “when you walk the streets in France, do people stop you and ask for your autograph?”
“All of the time,” he replied, “but not in the town where I live. There, everyone knows me.”
“Do you like being famous?” I asked.
“Very much!” he beamed. “In fact, there’s a documentary about me screening this week in San Francisco.”
“Oh, really? What’s it called?” I asked.
“Et bien—Derrida!” he responded, incredulously.
Damn, that was a stupid question, I thought.
“So, what kind of work do you do?” Jacques asked me.
“I’m an administrator at Stanford. Before that, I was a trial judge for almost 20 years.”
Jacques looked surprised and said, “Really? A judge?”
I smiled and said, “Yes. Don’t I look like a judge?”
“I guess,” he answered, without much conviction. “So,” he added with a grin, “you are a freak too!”
“Yes,” I laughed, “I guess that I am. We have something in common!”
“What kind of cases did you hear?” he continued.
When I told him about the wealthy inventor who left his riches to Tom, Dick, Mary, and Kim—four feral cats—he giggled.
“Pretty much everything: criminal, civil, divorces, probate, adoptions, mental health, name changes, and lots of jury trials,” I told him.
“Did you have any death penalty cases?” he asked. Given that the death penalty was one of the subjects of the Stanford conference, I was hardly surprised by this question.
“I don’t believe in the death penalty,” I said. “It isn’t a deterrent, and it is used disproportionately against poor people of color. So I refused to preside over those cases. There were other judges who had no problem handing down the death penalty. But I’ve got lots of war stories from my court—do you want to hear a few?”
Of course he did. Who can resist a good courtroom story? I regaled Jacques with anecdotes from my time on the bench, some serious and some silly. He was particularly amused by my description of the divorcing couple who fought over the husband’s set of dentures. And when I told him about the wealthy inventor who left his riches to Tom, Dick, Mary, and Kim—four feral cats—he giggled.
“Now do I look like a judge?” I asked.
“More and more!” he chuckled.
I had one more question for Jacques. “Do you have many books at your home?”
“Oh, yes,” he quickly responded. “My living room has bookcases from the floor to the ceiling. You and Florence must visit me at my home so I can show them to you.” Wait . . . did I just snag an invite to Jacques Derrida’s home in France?
As dinner concluded and the guests began leaving, I removed a small Instamatic camera from my coat pocket and asked Jacques if he would pose for a few photos with Florence and me. He readily agreed. Then I handed him Introducing Derrida. From the surprised look on his face, I surmised that he had never before seen the book. Jacques flipped through the pages and smiled. And in a moment of supreme chutzpah, I pointed to the drawing of him on the title page and asked, “Can you please autograph the book for me, right there—on your hair?” And so, he did, writing Pour LaDoris et Florence, de tout coeur, Jacques. (English translation: For LaDoris and Florence, with all my heart, Jacques.)
We shook hands, and as I was about to depart, he proclaimed, “This was the best time I’ve ever had at one of these dinners. Thank you.”
I had a wonderful time as well. Best of all, I understood every word that Jacques said.
LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, JD ’74, is a former Stanford vice provost and Santa Clara County superior court judge. Jacques Derrida died in October 2004, before she and Florence could visit him at his home. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.