Vol. 10 No. 4 · 18 February 1988
From A.J. Ayer
SIR: Since you devoted nearly sixteen columns of your issue of 4 February to an appraisal by Christopher Norris of the work of Paul de Man, you presumably do not share my view that most of it was gibberish. I quote a typical passage: ‘Heidegger’s thought manifests … the will to distinguish an authentic temporality – one that respects the predestined vocation of Being and truth – from a secular or fallen historicity that bears witness to man’s fateful swerve from that original destiny.’ Will you explain to me what you think this means?
From Editor, ‘London Review’
I have no ambition to claim that I understand the writings of Heidegger, or their interpretation. The gist, or geist, here, is that things have turned out badly for us, in ways that affect our experience of time. I was very interested in the story of which Paul de Man’s engagement with Heidegger forms part.
Editor, ‘London Review’
From Editors, ‘London Review’
Christopher Norris’s article in the last issue, on the work of Paul de Man, was accompanied by a box giving details of some relevant publications. Shoshana Felman’s name was misspelled there, and so was that of Peter Dodge, author of a book on Hendrik de Man.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 10 No. 5 · 3 March 1988
From Christopher Norris
SIR: I am sorry that A.J. Ayer (Letters, 18 February) failed to understand my article on Heidegger and Paul de Man. It addressed what I take to be important issues, and attempted to do so in a decently accessible manner. But he might try reading the piece again and suspending some of those fixed ideas which have made it such a high point of principle, among English-speaking philosophers, to profess stupefied astonishment whenever they come across Heidegger’s name. He might also pay a bit more attention to straightforward matters of context and argument. The sentence he cites as a ‘typical passage’ (typical of my own, not Heidegger’s style) was in fact offered by way of critical comment on the mystifying effects of such language.
University of Wales
Vol. 10 No. 6 · 17 March 1988
From Wolfgang Holdheim
SIR: Christopher Norris’s essay on ‘Paul de Man’s Past’ in your issue of 4 February deserves attention as an honest and generally lucid attempt by a sympathiser with de Man to come to terms with the recent revelations about that critic’s wartime publications in collaborationist Belgian papers. I feel particularly qualified to comment, not only because I am de Man’s successor at the Department of Comparative Literature in Cornell, but also because I myself spent the years of the German occupation in the Low Countries.
The importance of Mr Norris’s study lies in the fact that it provides a coherent historical and biographical picture of de Man’s intellectual development. Although Mr Norris admits that he uses this approach in defiance of de Man’s own repeated counsel, he still feels that it is not incompatible with his subject’s lessons. I beg to differ, and think it needs special emphasis that the elucidation requires principles that are radically at odds with de Man’s own philosophy.
In theory, though, Mr Norris takes de Man’s philosophy very seriously indeed. He expatiates on de Man’s demystification of Heidegger’s view that the language of German poetry dwells in the immediate proximity of Being, and connects it with the Belgian critic’s own rejection of his early infatuation with organicist metaphors that claimed to provide an immediate access to truth. Similarly, in exposing European preconceptions in the putatively universal viewpoint from which Husserl wanted to overcome the modern crisis, de Man remembers the fatal entanglements of his own crisis consciousness. Against all these totalising notions, fraught with ‘blindness’, de Man directs a ceaseless struggle for critical ‘insight’ based on close reading, on the continual exposure of language’s mystificatory rhetorical strategies. I have little doubt that de Man saw things in this way, but I am from the outset struck by a colossal disproportion. ‘Organicism’ sounds respectable – but can we really say that about those columns in Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land? Mr Norris himself mentions their crudity. They are in fact common Nazi hack work, excruciatingly dull and totally unoriginal, embarrassing to read in their mediocrity; even as experiments in blindness, they have no common measure with Husserl’s Eurocentrism or with Heidegger’s oracular obscurantism.
The true problem, however, lies elsewhere. Actually we are dealing with a mere surface version of de Man’s historical experience – its idealisation into near-abstractness, its dilution into the rarefied air of the ‘history of ideas’. But the history that de Man lived, that we all lived, was pressing and concrete. Mr Norris’s historical approach is not historical enough.
The later de Man is first and foremost a brilliant and sophisticated close reader of texts. But in the midst of his often dazzling peformance, we are confronted with a small number of unproved and unproven philosophical assumptions that keep recurring with almost maniacal inevitability. There is a major discrepancy between the overall critical subtlety of the readings and the often simplistic nature of those presuppositions. This strange duality has remained hidden from true believers, who are never noted for watchfulness. They are to some degree excused by the fact that these invariable premises are cleverly smuggled into a highly subtle discourse in whose subtlety they can easily seem to share. De Man’s texts tend to be virtuoso exercises in circularity where the presupposition is produced in the guise of a tortuously elaborated end-result. Nevertheless, the duality has long been clear to unmystified readers. I was one of them and was always sorely puzzled: now, having read the Belgian essays, I think I understand.
What helps me do so is my own historical experience, which was unfortunately quite concrete. How could one view the publication of articles such as de Man’s, written by a Belgian, in occupied Belgium in 1941 and 1942? Only as an act of unspeakable moral shabbiness. And what must have been the status of such an author in 1945? Nothing less than that of a moral, political and probably social outcast. This may be hard to understand for a generation safely shielded from that period by temporal distance, and often by a chronic lack of historical insight. We can be certain, though, that it was fully understood by de Man. In the light of the atrocious revelations that flooded us in 1945, he may even have reconsidered that praise of the Germans as exquisitely civilised occupiers which he had found it necessary to insert into a literary article at the time of his country’s humiliation. He must have been permanently traumatised by events.
This I perceive to be the figure in the carpet, the ultimate historical and biographical ground of those stubborn presuppositions that pervade de Man’s later work. Meaningfully coherent historical narratives are illusory; there is no subject, no real author – and if there seems to be, he knows not what he does. Texts are infinitely tricky, they never say what they seem to say, they always say the opposite, or both. The demystificatory uncovering of rhetorical subversions again and again escalates into a programmatic (and utterly simplistic) substitution of technical rhetorical categories for existential categories, until the latter cease to exist. Who can fail to detect a pattern of retreat from life, of denial of responsibility – an unending and tortuous process of disculpation and evasion? This is much more than the rejection of a silly blood-and-soil ‘organicism’: it is a deep-seated urge to dilute, to dissolve the weight of the past. Mr Norris comes close to this syndrome only at the end of his apologetics, à propos of the question of ethical responsibility. Revealingly, his argument here becomes muddled and contorted, jumping to and fro between de Man and Derrida, and finally turning the spit around by declaring that it is our ethical obligation to read de Man’s early texts in the light of his later ones.
I think that I have fulfilled this obligation, though hardly in the way Mr Norris had in mind. I hope he will not view this as a reason to dismiss my letter as an instance of the ‘opportunist polemics’ he deplores. One could argue at length about what is opportunistic and what is not. Some might even see opportunism in the writing of books on authors with currently overblown reputations. As for de Man, I do wish his case (a very minor one in the final reckoning) could be laid to rest. But this is hardly possible as long as he remains the object of a personality cult (even at its best, an unacceptable attitude in circles that lay claim to intellectuality), and as long as students continue to be ideologically indoctrinated with his very particular idiosyncrasies.
Cornell University, New York
From Editor, ‘London Review’
We are indebted to Professor Holdheim for his interesting letter. More letters on this subject will appear in the next issue.
Editor, ‘London Review’
From A.J. Ayer
SIR: I shall be obliged if Christopher Norris (Letters, 3 March) will identify, in plain English prose, two ‘important issues’ which his article on Heidegger and Paul de Man addressed, and indicate briefly what light it threw upon them.
Vol. 10 No. 7 · 31 March 1988
From Richard King
SIR: Christopher Norris’s apologia for Paul de Man (LRB, 4 February) made the best of what is by any odds a bad situation. Yet even in the terms Norris argues the case, major problems still remain:
Historical context. Though no dates are given, Hendrik de Man’s alleged effort to extract ‘socialism’ from National Socialism is absurd on the face of it. Surely what happened to the Strasser brothers should have revealed that long before Paul de Man’s uncle was faced with the fact of German occupation. Besides, what predispositions about nation and race would Hendrik de Man have had to possess even to consider such a possibility? And Norris’s conjecture that Paul de Man may have faced similar pressures is just that – a conjecture with no supporting evidence. Moreover, I don’t see why de Man’s writings of 1939-1940 wouldn’t possess the ‘charge of ideological meaning that we may now be tempted to read back into them’. Surely by that date what the Nazis were up to was hardly shrouded in secrecy.
Implications for literary theory. Though R.W.B. Lewis’s comments may have reflected old in-house (Yale) rivalries, he does have a point about the ‘ahistorical’ nature of deconstruction. Indeed Norris takes the point when he notes de Man’s suspicion of placing texts in personal and historical contexts. This is not to insinuate that all textualists (whether New Critics or Deconstructionists) have something ominous to hide or are cynical fascists. But it does suggest something the textualists will never acknowledge: that we haven’t understood a text fully, even if such an understanding implies that we can never get it all right since the text undermine its own efforts at coherence, if we haven’t tried to understand the conditions of its coming into existence. If this involves using ‘putative psychobiographical content’, so be it.
Finally, Norris fails to deal with de Man’s failure to acknowledge publicly what he had written in the late Thirties and early Forties. Important though the later shift in de Man’s theoretical orientation may have been, readers of de Man can hardly be faulted for failing to get the political and personal point. George Steiner said that Heidegger’s great flaw was not that he flirted with, and even actually courted, the Nazis, but that after 1945 he never deigned to explain himself, much less admit that he had been wrong. It seems to me that the same sort of charge can be brought against de Man.
From Simon Critchley
SIR: In a world of ceaseless change, where the flux of intellectual fashion carries us mercilessly along from crisis to crisis and from trend to trend, it is reassuring to know that some things never change. A prime example is A.J. Ayer’s attitude towards Continental philosophy. From the publication of Language, Truth and Logic to his recent response (Letters, 18 February) to Christopher Norris’s essay on ‘Paul de Man’s Past’, one can detect a continuity of intellectual enterprise which can be summarised by the following axiom: Continental philosophy is gibberish. Ayer’s attitude is one of acute mistrust and, dare we say, miscomprehension, treating the philosophy of the outre-manche as blundering ungrammatical jargon and thereby widening the already sizeable gulf that separates the analytic and the Continental philosophical traditions.
I commend Christopher Norris’s attempt to understand Heidegger’s thinking and to elaborate the parallelism and non-parallelism of Heidegger’s and de Man’s history of political engagement. It was delicately done – although I find myself in disagreement with elements of his interpretation. This attempted to show how de Man’s work prepares the way for a species of ideological critique, notably a critique of Heidegger’s and Husserl’s ‘Europocentrism’ – and would consequently differentiate de Man’s case from that of Heidegger (is there no preparation for ideological critique in Heidegger?). Although the Spirit-ridden skeleton of Heidegger’s political past will always return to haunt us, can we not show, as Derrida has recently attempted in De l’esprit, that Heidegger’s repetition of the tradition prepares an opening onto that which is wholly other to the tradition and which may, as a consequence, displace the political organicism of National Socialist ideology?
Much still remains to be thought on both sides of the gulf that separates the analytic and Continental traditions, and to condemn the latter as gibberish because it does not correspond to or imitate the criteria of the former is to commit the worst intellectual crime, that of closing down one of the possibilities for thinking. And, of course, to keep open a space for thinking was Heidegger’s point.
University of Essex
Vol. 10 No. 8 · 21 April 1988
From Christopher Norris
SIR: A.J. Ayer (Letters, 17 March) asks me to ‘identify, in plain English prose, two “important issues” which [my] article on Heidegger and Paul de Man addressed, and indicate briefly what light it threw upon them’. Professor Ayer knows as well as anyone that talk of ‘plain English’ is often a rhetorical ploy, a pretext for the kind of short-cut argument and anti-intellectualism that have marked some of the more dismal episodes in our island history. Perhaps I can save your readers’ time by pointing to the other letters you have received on this topic, most of them distinctly hostile but none of them – Ayer excepted – suggesting that this is a trivial business, or professing a total inability to grasp what my article said. Most likely he is just teasing and doesn’t really expect me to boil down a long and complex argument into one or two sentences of Basic English. Or perhaps the message hasn’t yet got through: that the Verification Principle failed its own test and so became the single most spectacular case of a self-deconstructing philosophic doctrine.
But this is to reduce the whole debate – as perhaps Professor Ayer would wish – to the level of knockabout polemics. So let me say once again: these are serious matters and not just the latest excuse for resurrecting old philosophical feuds. The discovery of de Man’s writings in Le Soir has caused great pain to his friends, colleagues and students, and also given rise to a widespread campaign of distorted coverage in the American and British press. Journalists have picked up the ‘facts’ of the case at second or third hand, and retailed them without the least effort to check their documentary sources. It has often been suggested that all or most of de Man’s articles for Le Soir – some hundred and seventy discovered to date – were either overtly anti-semitic or designed to lend support to Nazi cultural propaganda. In fact, just a handful of these pieces can possibly be read in such a light, and only one – his thoroughly obnoxious piece on the Jewish influence in contemporary literature – be said to warrant the charge of downright racialist sentiment. Of those remaining, many are reviews of various local artistic events – symphony concerts, chamber recitals, poetry readings and so forth – which occasionally touch on the question of national identity vis-à-vis the war and the current upheaval in European politics, but which cannot in all fairness be accused of exploiting those events for propaganda purposes.
De Man has a good deal to say about the shifting balance of power in Europe over the past two centuries, mostly by way of reflecting on the French collapse and the rise of post-Bismarck Germany as a nation state with the strength to assert its hegemonic claims. But he also makes a point of insisting, over and over again, that any workable programme of post-war reconstruction in Europe will have to make terms with the fact of cultural-linguistic diversity, a fact most apparent (then as now) in the divided condition of his own native Belgium. In particular, he argues that ‘French’ cultural values – reason, lucidity, disinterested critical thought – must somehow be brought into balance with the ‘German’ virtues of profundity, wisdom and greatness of soul. Of course there is something decidedly suspect about this habit of thinking in typecast nationalist terms. But it does help to pinpoint the deep ambivalence that runs through many of these articles.
In the years immediately preceding the war de Man had been involved with a journal, Les Cahiers du Libre Examen, whose editorial policy was squarely opposed to the line later adopted in Le Soir. The proper business of criticism – so de Man and his colleagues affirmed – was not to give way to short-term political pressures, but to hold out for the freedom of disinterested judgment and preserve a space for enlightened public debate. And furthermore, they pledged the journal to a continued defence of such values specifically against any violent imposition of dogmatic creeds and ideologies. Les Cahiers turned out to be a short-lived venture, since the Nazi occupation (just two years after its inaugural number) made it impossible for any publication openly to espouse such views.
That de Man went on to write his pieces for Le Soir may seem all the more an opportunist and cynical act of self-betrayal. But I think those later articles do make a genuine if muted attempt to envisage how the European nations might yet survive an all-out German victory while to some degree preserving their cultural identity intact. And this feeling is at its strongest when de Man touches – as he very often does on the topic of l’esprit Français and its role in the history of European thought. There is a piece on Charles Péguy (6 May 1941) that offers perhaps the most pointed example of these tensions in de Man’s thinking. Péguy was a young French socialist and Catholic intellectual who began writing in the mid-1890s, became passionately involved with political events (including the Dreyfus affair), and died in action during the Battle of the Marne. De Man clearly admires his work, especially as founder and editor-in-chief of Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, a journal that pursued a fiercely independent line and attracted the hostility of right and left-wing factions alike.
Any reference to the Dreyfus case must of course raise the question of anti-semitism and the resistance to it mounted by writers like Péguy and, most famously, Zola. De Man – it is worth noting – praises Péguy for having ‘remained a Dreyfusard to the end’, one who impressed his comrades as a ‘passionate thinker, imbued with the ideas of socialism and egalitarian justice’. It may be overgenerous to suggest, as some have done, that de Man was conducting a kind of cryptic resistance campaign through these writings, with one plain message for the cultural watchdogs and another for those who could read between the lines. But there is a strong sense, in this article and others, that de Man is still signalling his allegiance to the ideals set forth with such clarity and vigour in Les Cahiers du Libre Examen. Thus he makes a point of adverting to the title of Péguy’s review and its connections with ses cahiers d’école, si propres, si bien tenus. And what he singles out for praise in Péguy’s work is its spirit of liberal enquiry, a spirit that allowed him to range freely over topical questions ‘without any governing interest or constraint’.
In fact, there is evidence that de Man’s sympathies were not only divided but complex to the point of downright political confusion. What is one to make of the article published on 14 July 1942-anniversary of the French Revolution – where de Man nominates the Surrealist movement, and especially the work of Paul Eluard, as by far the most impressive recent sign of French cultural vitality? It is all the more remarkable that he ventured this estimate while reviewing a journal (Messages) known for its links with the French Resistance as well as with Communist or left-leaning elements in the Surrealist group. One could interpret such passages as indicating either a very weak grasp of political realities on de Man’s part or perhaps – more generously – a will to keep the channels of communication open and to risk what must have been, by this late date, the very real threat of reprisals from the Nazi censorship. The same might be said of his occasional admiring references to Kafka and other Jewish authors who had long since been condemned as decadent modernists by the Nazi cultural hacks. However one reads them – as courageous or naive – these passages must at least complicate our sense of de Man’s ‘collaborationist’ activity. Furthermore, it now appears (according to his son, Marc de Man) that he also wrote articles for the Resistance paper Les Voix de Silence. So there is good reason to suspend final judgment until more of this conflicting evidence becomes available.
University of Wales, Cardiff
From Jonathan Culler
SIR: Wolfgang Holdheim’s response to Christopher Norris (Letters, 17 March) seeks to explain Paul de Man’s views on language and meaning as a guilty reaction to his writing for collaborationist newspapers at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Belgium. The views Holdheim mentions, however – the critique of the assumption that history is a coherent narrative, critique of the author or subject as the determining source of meaning, emphasis on the ambiguities of language and on the rhetorical subversion of existential claims and categories in texts – resemble conclusions reached independently by other thinkers whose historical experience was quite different from de Man’s, such as Jacques Derrida, an Algerian Jew, and Roland Barthes, a Frenchman who spent the war undergoing treatment for tuberculosis in a sanatorium.
When one looks at what is distinctive in de Man’s theorising, one finds, for instance, an account of the interdependency of blindness and insight: his book Bilndness and Insight shows that for a range of thinkers from Husserl and Lukacs to Derrida, their best insights depend on assumptions that those insights disprove (and thus on their blindness). But far from excusing his own youthful blindness, de Man’s account would rather indict it: in his wartime juvenilia, there is no insight made possible by blindness. One might say that his subsequent discovery of his blindness produced insight, but that is quite different, quite explicitly not the structure he discovers in other critics, where insights are made possible by a blindness that the insights expose.
The wartime writings, mostly book reviews produced by a young man of 21 and 22 with no formal literary training, are a very mixed bag. Highly evaluative, with the callowness of a youth enjoying the role of cultural arbiter, they combine a desire to map European literature, a conviction that one can grasp the inexorable laws of literary history, with diverse critical impulses that make him appear, not surprisingly, a young man experimenting with various idées reçues. There are certainly columns one finds objectionable: one of the 169 columns in Le Soir, written early in his employment there for a special anti-semitic section at the insistence of his editor, adopted the language of anti-semitism to argue that European literature had not been corrupted by the Jews but remained fundamentally healthy; other columns of early 1941 praise Germany’s discovery of its identity and its importance for the future of Europe. But another, on Charles Péguy, sketching the intellectual context in which he wrote, affirms the innocence of Dreyfus and praises Péguy’s commitment to the Dreyfusard cause. Yet another celebrates Surrealism as the indispensable basis of modern poetry and especially Paul Eluard, whose Communist affiliations were well-known.
However severely one may wish to condemn the act of collaboration itself, one must recognise that the reviews do not adhere to some party line. The most consistent note, as Christopher Norris had seen, is an organicist language: nations find or fail to find their identity; they have a destiny; literature develops according to its own strict evolutionary laws.
De Man ceased writing for Le Soir in the fall of 1942, when the Nazis extended censorship to the cultural section of the paper, and abandoned critical writing for a decade. For the remainder of the war he worked in publishing (among other things, he arranged for the publication of a volume of Resistance poetry, Exercises du Silence, edited by Georges Lambrichs, that could not be published in France). When he resumed writing about literature, as a graduate student at Harvard, it was to initiate the critique of organicist and narrative figures through which he had sought to master literature for journalistic purposes. Here, then, one can see de Man’s work as in part a reaction against the assumptions of his wartime writing. The organicist figures used to describe language and literature are generated by a misreading of romanticism, whose greatest works, he came to argue, provide the instruments for their undoing. ‘Pseudo-historical period terms such as “romanticism” or “classicism”,’ he later wrote, ‘are always terms of resistance and nostalgia, at the furthest remove from the materiality of actual history.’
Another distinguishing feature of de Man’s writing has been a critique of the aesthetic ideology and his linking of it to violence, as in his essays on Kleist and Schiller. Walter Benjamin called Fascism the introduction of aesthetics into politics, and de Man cites in a late essay, as an example of the most grievous misappropriation of the aesthetic ideology, the comparison, in a novel by Joseph Goebbels, of the Führer to an artist, who shapes the masses as a sculptor shapes stone. De Man’s critique of the aesthetic ideology now resonates also as a critique of the fascist tendencies he had known and their deadly adoption of a language of unity, presence, and the elimination of difference.
The discovery of de Man’s wartime writings will block an inclination to idealise the man and will prevent him from being cited simply as an authority but it also gives a new dimension to de Man’s attempt – from his critiques of Heidegger in the Fifties to his critiques of phenomenality in the Seventies and Eighties – to undo totalising metaphors, myths of immediacy, organic unity, and presence, and combat their fascinations. His later writings offer some of the most powerful tools for combating the ideology with which he had earlier been complicitous.
From A.J. Ayer
SIR: In a letter published in your issue of 31 March, Mr Simon Critchley accuses me, by implication, of philosophical insularity. I regret that, in order to rebut this charge, I have to blow my own trumpet, I hope not too loudly. Since the war, I have received and accepted invitations to lecture in 32 foreign countries, 18 of them in Europe. I have lectured frequently in French, occasionally in Spanish and German. If there were such a thing as ‘the Continental tradition’, and its adherents believed that I treated them unfairly, it is unlikely that I should have been elected President of the International Institute of Philosophy. Among the works which I commissioned when I edited Routledge and Kegan Paul’s International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method were English translations of Lucien Goldmann’s Le Dieu Caché and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la Perception. I have been able to count many other foreign Marxists and Phenomenologists among my personal friends. I do, however, admit that I have not so far found anything to admire in what I know of the work of either Jacques Derrida or Martin Heidegger.
Vol. 10 No. 9 · 5 May 1988
From Dan Latimer
SIR: Before reading the responses on your Letters page to Christopher Norris’s balanced and informative piece on Paul de Man, I had idealised England as a country blessedly unlike the United States, where instrumental reason stands in for the life of the mind, where literature departments are staffed by people who agree largely with Sir Philip Sidney on the pabulum value of literary studies (‘food for the tenderest stomachs’), where the historical sense has all the profundity of a television mini-series, where local chauvinism makes everything foreign seem a dangerous microbe to be returned to its origin by a blast of native common sense, and where the halls and coffee rooms of universities resound eternally with ridicule for the ‘Jacques-sniffers’ and ‘uncritical theorists’ whose guilt consists of trying to keep abreast of Continental developments in literature and philosophy during the last ten years. Most people have not made this effort. It was easier not to. Now that there are the articles in Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche La. d, these people declare themselves to have been wise all along, when they were merely lazy or professionally threatened. Their righteousness seems especially suspect when one considers that, as long as one is protective of the right ‘orthodoxy’, one can say, us T.S. Eliot did in 1933 at the University of Virginia, that ‘reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.’ One can have said these things and still be admired in literature departments. One can be enshrined in the Norton Anthology. One can even win the Nobel Prize in 1948. Nor is it any comfort or excuse for socialist bigotry to remember that Karl Marx said more appalling things about Jews than either Eliot or de Man ever did.
What is being celebrated now, prematurely, in the wake of Mr Ortwin de Graef’s researches, is the fall of a man whose presence made a lot of people indirectly, and sometimes directly, uncomfortable. Their present euphoria is healthy neither for their vocation nor for themselves in the long term, mixed as it is with ressentiment, hypocrisy, and their now-triumphant professional inadequacy. What both Norris and Geoffrey Hartman in the New Republic have painstakingly said about the de Man episode will remain as a standard of wisdom and sanity long after de Man’s detractors have drained the reservoirs of their vitriol.
To say, as some have, that de Man’s career was a ‘denial of responsibility’ is certainly incorrect. I can scarcely claim to have known de Man. I was never a member of his Inner Circle. But he corrected me once on the subject of his uncle Hendrik, whose career was used, as early as 1981 (see New Left Review 127:57), to cast a sinister light on de Man’s own. I complained about the unfairness of this procedure and said that, if one considered the historical context and the tragic pressures to which Hendrik de Man was subjected, one would see how utterly facile it is now condemn him from our own safe historical vantage-point. To this de Man replied: ‘He had plenty to be ashamed of, all right.’ I took the comment then, and I take it now, as a warning not to minimise ethical failure because it took place under circumstances which at first sight might seem to excuse it, when the facts, as Derrida says, were not yet a fact. It is a source of pleasure and, to be sure, of some considerable pain that such moments return to memory now heavy with a significance one did not at the time know they had. Those who knew him better than I will know what I mean. There were many such moments.
Vol. 10 No. 10 · 19 May 1988
From Cynthia Chase
SIR: Admirable as it is for lucidity and fairness, in contrast to the sensationalistic and malicious articles that have appeared in the American press, Christopher Norris’s ‘Paul de Man’s Past’ (LRB, 4 February) mis-states the argument of de Man’s ‘early and middle-period essays’ of the Fifties and Sixties and mistakes the history of his writing. Though he is right that de Man’s wartime writing takes for granted, and his later writing deconstructs, organicist models of language and culture, the exclusive focus on this single theme in de Man’s texts, to the neglect of its historical context both within and beyond them, confirms Norris in making a basic mistake: a reductive biographical interpretation of de Man’s work. Norris construes all de Man’s post-war writing as an attempt to leave behind his past prior to 1942 – as ‘a prolonged and painful reckoning with his own past errors’. Such a description of Paul de Man’s work stems no doubt from a worthy impulse: the wish to discover, in a man whom one had for good reasons admired, ‘a powerful if belated act of conscience’, in Geoffrey Hartman’s words. But that impulse should not be allowed to stand in the way of a more exact assessment of de Man’s thought, locating it in intellectual history.
Its resources as critique or rather as warning and counter-proposal are far more extensive than Norris suggests, and they are as explicit in the essays of the Fifties as in those of the Eighties. Appealing as it is, the model of a conversion narrative, or the upward curve of ‘evolving’ political wisdom such as Norris would see in de Man’s writings from early to late, unacceptably simplifies and distorts the texts’ content and status. De Man’s post-war writing does not (as Norris suggests) move from an apolitical or anti-political stance in the essays of the Fifties and Sixties to a critical practice akin to radical Ideologiekritik and an implicit commitment to the ‘political’ in the Seventies and Eighties. Rather the critique of models of poetry and history implicated in fascism is there, sharply stated, in the early Fifties as well as later – and in some of the very essays or passages focused on poetry or marked by a ‘Heideggerian thematics’ that Norris takes to be apolitical or blurry. The early essays already indeed, as Norris maintains, function as ideology-critique in their criticism of the European supremacism and organicist models residual in Husserl and Heidegger. But the critique is much more pointed and far-reaching, and extends to the idealist distinction by which Norris (among others) perpetuates the false opposition he erroneously attributes to the early de Man, for whom, he thinks, ‘poetry and politics’ are ‘in some sense antithetical terms’. Far from being the stance of de Man’s early essays, this is the position they differ from and attack, and the attack extends to the inadequate conception guiding Norris’s interpretation here: a conventional distinction between anti-political concern for poetry and political concern for politics. For de Man the split between reflection and action falls within poetry as also within politics, rather than between them. Thus in ‘Wordsworth and Hölderlin’, ‘an excess of interiority’ is judged to be the paramount historical and political peril and error. In de Man’s readings of Hölderlin and Wordsworth, the poetic imagination consists in the doubled action of both ‘Titanism and a turning back’, and is explicitly identified with Rousseau – hardly an apolitical figure.
De Man’s critical thought – his critique of ‘aesthetic ideology’, to borrow the title of a forthcoming volume of essays on Kant, Schiller and Hegel – derives from a historical valuation present in his book reviews of 1941-2, thereafter drastically reinterpreted: the evaluation of Romanticism as the decisive innovation in Western thought and history. The notion of distinctive national cultural identities and the habitual distinction between French clarity and German sense of the infinite, between French classicism and German romanticism, in writing of the Thirties and Forties (not only de Man’s), is embedded in an educational and philosophical tradition dating back to before 1800, when Schiller held out a solution to the problem of imitation that troubled Enlightenment thought, how (not) to (merely) imitate the works of Classical Antiquity. On Naive and Sentimental Poetry proposes that while the Greeks’ nature is the natural, or ‘naive’, ‘our’ nature is cultural, or ‘sentimental’, and has the ultimate value, Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic Education suggest, of enabling us to regain paradise, or nature, as it were from the far side. Such is the ideal of ‘aesthetic education’ and the ‘aesthetic state’ of which de Man observes: ‘despite repeated attempts by commentators, alarmed by its possible implications, to relativise and soften the idea of the aesthetic state (aesthetischer Staat) … the “state” that is here being advocated is not just a state of mind or of soul, but a principle of political value and authority that has its own claims on the shape and limits of our freedom. It would lose all interest if this were not the case. For it is as a political force that the aesthetic still concerns us as one of the most powerful ideological drives to act upon the reality of history’ (‘Aesthetic Formalisation’, 1983). ‘Aesthetic ideology’ appears in Schiller as a conception of the social order as an aesthetic achievement. He writes in 1793: ‘I know of no better image for the ideal of a beautiful society than a well-executed English dance, composed of many complicated figures and turns.’ De Man’s critical analysis of aesthetic ideology targets both the identification of the state with a work of art and the supposition, also Schiller’s, of their separateness: of fixed boundaries between ‘the realm of truth’ and ‘the realm of appearances’, which becomes the assumption of the separateness of Geist and Staat, and the celebration of ‘eternal values’ of art and poetry immune to politics or history, typical of Paul de Man’s own wartime writing in collaborating newspapers – as well as of professors of Germanistik and Classics who took themselves to be upholding a defence of human values against Nazi domination. Such a retreat not simply from politics, but from historical reflection on the relationship between the idea of culture and the idea of the state, such withdrawal into an assertion of the permanent and immediate presence of spiritual values within great works of literature, was characteristic of humanistic literary studies after as well as during the war. As the belief in the redemption or fusion of contradictions through poetic imagination, it remains a dominant assumption in literary criticism in the United States today, described by de Man in ‘The Dead-End of Formalist Criticism’ (1956) as ‘salvational poetics’.
The resource for the swerve in de Man’s own writing on literature and history after the war is the very historical valuation present in his articles from 1941-2, the significance accorded to Romanticism. The decisiveness of the new interpretation of that judgment (not its abandonment), and the exact content of the new interpretation, are plain in the polemical pointedness as well as the unremitting complexity of a lecture de Man delivered at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in 1953, ‘Le Devenir, la Poésie’ (‘Process and Poetry’), where what makes the difference between his earliest and his later writing stands out unmistakably: the reading, with and against Heidegger, of the poetry and the poetic theory of Hölderlin. For de Man’s critique here of ‘poetic eternalism’ leads into a counter-proposal specifically derived from Hölderlin, a reading of modern poetry (here of Mallarmé and Baudelaire) as performing the ‘task of poetic consciousness’ in coming to terms with its historicality, its non-essentiality, the impossibility of being (something single, proper, whole). Hölderlin’s thought has been interpreted, notably by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, as that divergence within speculative idealism in the Romantic period that disqualifies the concept of the aesthetic for assimilation to ‘national aestheticism’, Lacoue-Labarthe’s term for the aesthetic ideology he argues was the essence of Nazism.
Hölderlin radically rethinks the relation between Greece and the Occident posed by Schiller: the Greeks’ most successful achievement (‘clarity’) was what was not ‘native’ to them (‘sacred pathos’); Hölderlin re-defines what is one’s ‘own’ as that which is most difficult to accomplish, which one is least likely to achieve. The notion of a proper national cultural identity is thereby dismantled, and with it the notion of historical process (whether of poetry or society) as an imitation or return, and the possibility of modelling a modern state or culture on an ancient one or on a harmonious aesthetic whole. In his 1953 lecture de Man alludes to the ‘historical symbolism’ by which Hölderlin expresses his conception of the conflictual character of any historical situation or any consciousness – the thesis of de Man’s polemic against eternalist humanism. Hölderlin’s detailed theorisation of his translations of Sophocles that de Man discusses here manifestly inspires his own practice of deconstructive or ‘rhetorical reading’ which this lecture as well as later essays carries out.
The critical power of the resource de Man discovered in Hölderlin’s divergence from Schillerian classicism is measurable in the final chapter of The Rhetoric of Romanticism, ‘Aesthetic Formalisation: Kleist’s “Über das Marionnettentheater” ’. This essay locates the trend toward aestheticist totalitarianism (such as Nazism) in more than the ‘mystifying power of organicist creeds’ evoked by Norris and many analysts of fascism. De Man’s diagnosis (via Kleist’s ironical text) of organicist and authoritarian models of the ‘aesthetic state’ is scathing. But the essay reserves its most intense indictment for the aesthetification of the formal, mechanical aspect of language, the conception of the work – and of the social order or the state – as ‘a system of tropes’, a formal pattern of turns and figures. De Man stresses that Kleist’s text, unlike Schiller’s, reveals such a system as a puppets’ dance.
Like Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s characterisation of Nazism as ‘national aestheticism’, with which it has much in common, de Man’s concept of ‘formalisation’ – the aesthetification, as a satisfying, recognisable form, of the formal, mechanical, arbitrary and contradictory process of language – gets at both aspects of Nazism, the combination of which has puzzled and appalled political analysts: the Nazis’ romantic aestheticism, an ideology of organic form, and at the same time unparalleled total commitment to sheer mechanical technological power.
De Man’s counter-proposal to the conception of the work as a sheerly formal system is that of a reading process in which the formal and the referential aspects of language are continually in conflict and at stake. The emblem or the example of this activity that Kleist counterposes to the Schillerian model of the social dance is a fencing match: continually alternating feints and thrusts, in which the challenge is also that of not degenerating into actual violence. De Man turns from ‘formalisation’ to ‘the question of reading as the necessity to decide between signified and referent, between violence on the stage and violence in the streets’. We have the resource, in such a model, for a non-authoritarian, non-totalitarian, non-aesthetic politics.
Cornell University, New York
From Geert Lernout
SIR: I have followed with great interest the exchange of ideas on Paul de Man and on the fate of ‘Continental philosophy’ in the UK. It seems to me that among the prerequisites for a useful debate is a willingness to take the arguments of one’s opponents at least seriously enough to engage in a discussion: something that seems to be lacking on the analytic side. I know of no work on Derrida, de Man or even Heidegger from a purely analytic perspective, and all the writers who do intend to mediate are non-French Continental philosophers. Two British critics have recently managed to present the Post-Structuralist paradigm in excellent and very readable introductions: one of the chapters in Christopher Norris’s book on Derrida directly addresses the issue of the French philosopher’s reading of the ‘Oxford connection’, and in Logics of Disintegration Peter Dews offers a cogent critique precisely by taking its arguments seriously. Both stress the relevance of the French work in the larger context of European philosophy by playing down the role of Heidegger, whose influence was clearly crucial to the success of deconstruction in the US and, it seems, to the lack of success in the UK.
In the case of Paul de Man, neither the simply dismissive attitude of A.J. Ayer nor the ‘opportunistic polemics’ in Newsweek (in which Jeffrey Mehlman offered the theory that deconstruction is nothing less than ‘a vast amnesty project for the politics of collaboration during World War Two’) is appropriate. The question whether Paul de Man was a collaborator, and if so, to what extent, cannot be answered by literature professors or philosophers, and should be addressed by historians who are aware of the specific conditions in occupied Belgium.
I agree with Wolfgang Holdheim (who is actually much closer to Norris’s analysis than he seems to think): we cannot afford, in present circumstances, to observe a pious silence. Too much is at stake. That is why the Department of Germanic Philology of the University of Antwerp in Wilrijk is organising a Paul de Man conference on 24 and 25 June at which Paul de Man’s Belgian period (he was born in Antwerp) will be discussed by Jean Stengers, a historian and specialist of the war years who studied with de Man at the Free University of Brussels, and by Ortwin de Graef, who originally found the incriminating articles. Other speakers will include Christopher Norris, Rodolphe Gasche, and three generations of students and colleagues of de Man: Cyrus Hamlin (Yale), Stanley Corngold (Princeton), Carol Jacobs (Buffalo) and Anselm Haverkamp (Constance).
University of Antwerp
Vol. 10 No. 11 · 2 June 1988
From Claude Rawson
The business of the unsavoury de Man has been proceeding predictably: smokescreens of lofty irrelevance (Heidegger, Husserl, ‘organicism’) punctuated by hot flushes of polysyllabic panic, complacencies of odium academicum designed to neutralise any idea that the real issue might be something other than Professor Norris’s opinion of ‘English-speaking philosophers’, and so on. The latest number of LRB to reach me (Letters, 21 April) makes me wonder just when Messrs Norris and Culler are going to reveal to us that some of de Man’s best friends were Jews.
From Glen Frankfurter
Thank you from the depths of my heart for Professor Holdheim’s letter (Letters, 17 March) and his comment on Christopher Norris’s essay on Paul de Man. There must be a vast number who were deeply disturbed, as I was, by the ahistorical view of life and literature that attempted to construct an epistemology without root or stem and wondered what, other than a lack of any creative talent, could be its motivation. The din was so great that few of us could be heard and when a whole generation was sent forth to man the bastions of learning it became impossible to tell the hollow men from the blockheads. I believe that Professor Holdheim has not only given us a ‘close reading’ of the infamous de Man but a critical key that lays bare the unutterable shame that provides the real episteme for much of what passes for social and political thought in modern Europe. What do we see, we inheritors of the worlds of Bacon and Locke and Hume, and what can we learn from the ugly spectacle of the heirs of Kant and Kierkegaard, Hegel and Nietzche tramping in the bloody parades from stalag to gulag and back again? As we gather up the blood-stained pages that Professor Holdheim has revealed to us, perhaps we can discern another and more hopeful vision amid the stench and flickering light emitted by these mines of sulphur. It is the image of Marc Bloch, tortured and shot by the Gestapo with guns that had been loaded by these ‘thinkers’. And I can hear the cry of the American poet and novelist Evan S. Connell shouting across that abyss, far wider than the Channel, to another great historian destroyed in the Warsaw Ghetto: ‘Peace, Dubnow, as long as paper lasts, where can they hide?’
From Cushing Strout
Jonathan Culler’s response (Letters, 21 April) to Wolfgang Holdheim’s letter on Paul de Man rejects the notion that his views are ‘a guilty reaction to his writing for collaborationist newspapers at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Belgium’ and proposes instead that his later writings are valuable ‘for combating the ideology with which he had earlier been complicitous’. Christopher Norris had made the same point. All three writers are engaging in intellectual biography and history, where the issues must be settled, though I think we need to know much more than we do now to advance the narrative. Still, in an age of theorising that has denigrated both history and biography, it is ironic that it is the biographical problem of a leading theorist which has driven his defenders to realms they usually disdain as the province of old-fashioned literary criticism. One must wonder, however, how deconstructionists will be able to do the biographical job they propose to do since they are dedicated in principle, as Culler proclaims, to ‘the critique of the assumption that history is a coherent narrative,’ to ‘critique of the author or subject as the determining source of meaning’. It is precisely the problem of making a coherent narrative and finding the author’s meaning, however, that the historical argument about de Man is all about. Deconstructionists like Norris and Culler are supposed to be especially alert to contradictions in texts, and perhaps they are. But what is most striking about their defence of de Man’s theories is their confident plunge into matters of biography and history which depend upon assumptions that their principles contradict. We shall need to demystify deconstruction if the de Man story is to be constructed. That is a point in Holdheim’s letter that neither Norris nor Culler addresses.
Whatever the coherent narrative turns out to be, making it will not be helped by proclaiming in advance, as Norris and Culler do, that the story will be proof of the wisdom in de Man’s later theorising because it criticises his earlier disastrous assumptions. Maybe that is why he was drawn to his theory; that is a sympathetic and possible biographical hypothesis. But even if true, it proves nothing about the wisdom or folly of deconstruction.
Cornell University, New York
Vol. 10 No. 13 · 7 July 1988
From Juliet Flower MacCannell
Professor Cynthia Chase’s letter of 19 May regarding the Paul de Man affair is an indication of the vexed situation in which he left some of his brightest followers (Letters, 19 May). The level of Chase’s argumentation is, as is usual with her, extraordinarily high. But its points is surprising and perplexing. She criticises Christopher Norris’s sensible attempt to read de Man’s early literary criticism as de Man’s students from the Sixties did – as his way of re-thinking the roots of fascism. Chase seems to be making the claim that, on the contrary, Paul de Man never changed – that from first to last his was a consistent stance. Since she is so familiar with his work, both the earliest and the latest texts, we must credit her perceptions to some degree. Using the image of the ‘swerve’ (not the turn around or the turn away, but a deviation or detour in a largely similar direction), Chase appears to imply that there was always in de Man’s writing and thought a resistance to fascism. Her major resource for this argument is a very late text indeed, the talk on ‘Kant and Schiller’, currently available only as a somewhat flawed transcript. In that text – a sustained critique of the idea of aesthetic education and the humanities educational institutions it shaped – de Man traces a genealogy of fascism through aesthetic philosophy. He moves from Kant, who practises ‘pure’ philosophy, to Schiller, who misapplies Kant to empirical life, popularising and thus betraying ‘thought’, to Goebbels, who furthers the misreading in so catastrophic a manner. De Man’s implicit point is that philosophy and life should not be mixed. In a way, it could be said that what he is providing here is his post-mortem of the genesis and structure of fascism as a recurring tendency to fall from ‘thought’ into ‘empirical life’. He specifies this in linguistic terms as a transition from cognitive tropology (philosophy) to performative utterance (act). This is indeed a stance that remains consistent throughout his American career. In the long run, however, an after-the-fact analysis is the only thing de Man’s theory and methods could do with, to or against fascism, which is explicable in his system as a rather natural human tendency to fall from ascetic (philosophical) heights. When it comes to fascism, autopsy is the limit of his analytic power.
The great failing of Paul de Man is not to be linked to the many moral failings (ranging from gullibility to deception and opportunism) objected against his character by his critics, both before and after the disclosures. It is his chosen failing, his decision to keep social life unthought. In a letter to a friend (3 January 1939) he responds to the complaint that he does not attend enough to his fellow man by denying the charge: he is indeed interested in them, he writes, but only on condition that he remain perfectly detached from them. In the ‘Kant and Schiller’ piece he repeats this gesture, even dismissing Kant’s references to the interpersonal as figurative ploys for presenting what really counts, his thought. By refusing absolutely to think the inter subjective relation, to make the ‘form of the social tie’, as Lacan called it, a matter for serious attention, study and critique, he apparently wants to keep thought pure and separated from any distorted acts that might be performed (in ‘real life’) on its basis.
His work on Rousseau fits into this programme. Rousseau was among the first to try to think the inter-personal relation under the new social contract of modernity; de Man’s interpretation of his writing is no less than its sustained and patient recuperation from social action (the French Revolution), from the sciences of man (Lévi-Strauss), for ‘thought’ (tropology). Why do I call this a failing? Ultimately, it keeps social life, social acts, safe from critical thought, relegated to the unconscious. Such a radical subjectivism, resulting in a principled, laissez-faire relation to others, is almost Jansenist in character.
At a conference on ‘Institutes and Institutions’ held this April at Irvine, Professor Jonathan Culler (Chase’s spouse, who has also written in these pages on this topic) offered a paper which called for ‘elimination of the social sciences’ from the University. At the same conference Professor Jacques Derrida explained that his own work is an effort to offset the gains made by modern social science on territory traditionally held by philosophy. Presumably Derrida’s references were to those social analysts on whom he himself has written: Lévi-Strauss (anthropology), Lacan (psychoanalysis), Jakobson (semiotic linguistics), as well as members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research. The re-conquest for ‘thought’ of ground gained by the ‘sciences of man’ would, if one were to credit de Man’s thesis, be a means of resisting ‘fascism’ – even though each of the social scientists I have just mentioned has a somewhat better personal track record in this respect than de Man. Whom are we to believe?
Juliet Flower MacCannell
Director of the Focused Research Program for Gender and Women’s Studies, University of California, Irvine
From Christopher Norris
Cynthia Chase (Letters, 19 May) takes issue with my reading of Paul de Man’s work on account of its ‘reductive’ biographical approach and its failure to comply with his own repeated counsel against such naive misconceptions. Perhaps you would allow me to address her arguments and, by implication, some of the points raised in other letters that you have published during the past few months. There are three possible lines of response to the discovery of these wartime writings. The first – as argued by hostile commentators like Frank Lentricchia – would take the worst possible view of their content, and would hold furthermore that everything de Man went on to write must (so to speak) carry guilt by association, and therefore be deeply suspect on ideological grounds. The second would maintain, on the contrary, that de Man’s later texts have absolutely nothing in common with his early writings, that in fact they exhibit an extreme resistance to that form of dangerously mystified thinking, and should therefore be treated as belonging to a different order of discourse. The third – and this is basically my own understanding – is that de Man’s later work grew out of an agonised reflection on his wartime experience, and can best be read as a protracted attempt to make amends (albeit indirectly) in the form of an ideological auto-critique.
In the introduction to his book Frege: Philosophy of Language Michael Dummett recalls having experienced something like the shock of belated discovery that has attended these recent revelations about de Man. Dummett had devoted many years to his study of Frege, thinking him the greatest of modern logicians and philosophers of language. At one point he decided to set aside this project temporarily and devote himself to the work of improving and combating the effects of National Front propaganda. Subsequently he discovered that Frege had himself held views of an extreme right-wing character, that he had expressed overtly racist sentiments, and indeed gone along with that whole pernicious line of half-baked populist rhetoric that Dummett now confronted. But in the end this discovery made no real difference to his estimate of Frege’s contribution in the fields of logic and linguistic philosophy. That work belongs to such a specialised domain – so remote from Frege’s individual psycho-pathology, or the content of his social and political beliefs – that Dummett was able to continue his project with a good conscience. After all, it is among the main axioms of Fregean philosophy that truth-values exist independently of thoughts going on in this or that mind, and that language in its logical or truth-conditional aspect has nothing to do with matters of subjective or individual belief. So clearly there is a case for arguing, like Dummett, that one has to draw a firm, categorical line between Frege’s logico-linguistic innovations and his repugnant political views.
Now I don’t think that this is a real option in de Man’s case, despite the fact that so much of his later work is conducted in a style of austere, impersonal rigour that might seem to approximate ‘pure’ philosophy of language. One could recall, in this connection, the passage from his essay on Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’ where de Man writes that ‘it is not a priori certain at all that the mode of meaning, the way in which I mean, is intentional in any way’: it ‘is dependent on linguistic properties that are not only not made by me, because I depend on the language as it exists for the devices which I will be using, it is as such not made by us as historical beings, it is perhaps not even made by humans at all.’ We cannot any longer read such passages as they ask to be read: that is to say, as referring purely to those questions in the province of language, translation, rhetoric and the other topics that preoccupied de Man in his last years. From one point of view – that taken by the hostile commentators – they reveal the quite extraordinary lengths to which he went in order to repress, disguise or evade the memory of those early journalistic writings. From another, they are the end-point of a long and painful coming-to-terms with the fact of that guilt and the way that what is written possesses a starkly material force that can always return to haunt the writer. As Geoffrey Hartman has pointed out, there is something more than a circumstantial irony in the fact that de Man is here writing about Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish critic who was driven to suicide while attempting to escape from the Nazi forces of occupation. But we shouldn’t, for that reason, be tempted to conclude that the later work is nothing more than a species of obscure private atonement; that its claims to offer a rigorous reflection on the powers and the limits of language are simply a last-ditch strategy of evasion.
There can be no doubt that de Man had reasons – urgently personal reasons – for wanting to convince himself that language and history were utterly beyond the control or understanding of the situated individual subject. In this sense, the whole of his later production could be read (as critics like Lentricchia read it) as one long attempt to disown responsibility for what he had once written. But this is to take those later pronouncements very much at face value, as if de Man had really succeeded in repressing all trace of such memories. It is worth bearing in mind some remarks of Mizae Mizumura, herself hard put to account for the curious co-existence in de Man’s work of an intense desire to renounce the pathos of subjective guilt and loss with an equally compulsive need to return to such themes and endlessly rehearse them in his writing. ‘The impression of deprivation comes closer, nonetheless, to grasping the quintessence of de Man than a placid acceptance of the extreme ascesis that reigns in his work … The one who has not been tempted would not have spoken so often about the necessity (and the impossibility) of renunciation – and would not have done so with such authority.’ Mizumura was writing before the existence of those articles for Le Soir became public knowledge. But her comments take on an additional force when read – as one inevitably reads them now – in the context of de Man’s wartime writings and his lifelong attempt to atone for past errors. The point is not just that his entire subsequent production must henceforth be seen as a species of cryptic autobiography, a confessional record that merely masquerades as textual exegesis, philosophy of language, or Ideologiekritik. Rather, it is the fact that de Man’s own experience had left so deep and lasting an impression on his work that one simply cannot separate (in T.S. Eliot’s phrase) the ‘man who suffers’ from ‘the mind that creates’, or the strain of anguished self-reckoning from the desire to put these lessons to work in a rigorously critical way. It is wrong to suppose that these readings are wholly incompatible, or that somehow the presence of these sombre meditations counts against our accepting the validity and force of his arguments.
University of Wales, Cardiff
Vol. 10 No. 14 · 4 August 1988
From Jacques Derrida
The letter from Juliet Flower MacCannell (Letters, 7 July) seems to me even more obscure in its content than in its motivations. For lack of time, place or interest, I will not discuss it in detail. Here are simply a few factual corrections.
Of course, I never made the remarks attributed to me. During the conference in question, without the least allusion to what J.F. MacCannell calls my ‘own work’, I attempted to analyse the conditions in which myself and others founded the Collège International de Philosophie in 1983. I dare to think that what I had to say about it was a good deal less foolish than the things J.F. MacCannell thought herself competent to reconstruct, without a single verifiable quotation, and to pass along. It is true that the strange document she sent to you depends entirely on such procedures (for example, that unlocalisable 1939 letter from which nothing is quoted and whose addressee is unknown). Nor do I recall that Jonathan Culler at any time ‘called for “elimination of the social sciences” from the University’. He can specify this for himself.
J.F. MacCannell appears to want to rush to the aid of the sciences and the social sciences. She would be more credible if she respected their basic rules and if her eloquence did not exploit the unverifiable. ‘Whom are we to believe?’ she asks in closing. I will answer: not her.
Director of Studies, Ecole des Hautes Etudesen Sciences Sociales, Paris
From Christopher Norris
Your Letters page (Letters, 7 July) has me say of Michael Dummett that at one stage he set aside his work on Frege in order to devote more time ‘to the work of improving and combating the effects of National Front propaganda’. What I actually wrote was ‘devote himself to improving race relations and combating the effects …’
Vol. 10 No. 15 · 1 September 1988
From Su Yüan-hsi
Whatever else one may say about the late Paul de Man, one reason for regretting his passing has come more and more frequently to mind these last few months: alive, he scared some of his colleagues and students into being careful in print. Now it seems that any argument is good. To de Man’s published wartime errors Juliet Flower MacCannell has added (Letters, 7 July) a character-flaw which we are meant to take as extending from his earliest writings (and private letters) to his last: that of not being a very nice man. True, a would-be Olympian tone came easily to the young de Man (as to the young Shelley, the young Marx, the young Adorno et j’en passe), and, also true, up to the end he maintained a wariness toward the social sciences. Contrasting his ‘record’ with those of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Jakobson and some of the Frankfurt School, MacCannell asks: ‘Whom are we to believe?’ The key word is of course believe. It would be an act of misplaced pride to suppose that we readers could work things out for ourselves; and if we were disposed to do so, those who make such a fuss and flurry of enthymemes over de Man’s ethos would have less to thunder about. Nice thought: and only the thunderers would stand to lose anything by it.
New Haven, Connecticut
From Jonathan Culler
Juliet Flower MacCannell, reporting that I called for ‘the elimination of the social sciences from the university’, proceeds to praise the virtues of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan and Roman Jakobson. Perhaps she has forgotten, but my complaint was that the social sciences in the United States have increasingly concerned themselves with questions that have quantitative answers. This leads social science departments to neglect, not only the work of the scholars she mentions, but entire traditions of social thought and of the human sciences. Interdisciplinary humanities centres have been created in many American universities to fill the vacuum by addressing questions about language, mind and society that American social science has abandoned. There is, of course, little chance that these social science departments will be eliminated, but on many campuses they consume valuable resources while contributing little to reflection on important issues that have traditionally concerned social theorists and psychologists.
Cornell University, New York
From Cynthia Chase
Juliet Flower MacCannell’s letter describes me as claiming, in my letter of 19 May, that ‘Paul de Man never changed,’ and as criticising Christopher Norris’s ‘sensible attempt to read de Man’s early literary criticism as de Man’s students from the Sixties did – as his way of re-thinking the roots of fascism’. I claimed, to the contrary, that de Man’s thinking changed decisively between 1942 and 1953 – that the critique missing in his wartime writing of ‘models of poetry and history implicated in fascism is there, sharply stated, in the early Fifties, as well as later’ – and I criticised Christopher Norris, not for his cogent account of the re-thinking of the roots of fascism in de Man’s essays ‘The Temptation of Permanence’ and ‘Heidegger’s Exegeses of Hölderlin’ (both of 1955), but for his misdescription of other early essays, specifically those on Wordsworth and Hölderlin, as apolitical or anti-political, and for the kind of biographical interpretation that led him to the misreading of those essays (through the reasoning that it would make sense psychologically for de Man at that point to have become cynical about politics). In describing the crucial swerve in de Man’s thinking, my ‘major resource’ was not, as MacCannell writes, ‘a very late text indeed, the talk on “Kant and Schiller” ’, which in fact I did not mention, but rather the important early essay ‘Le Devenir, la Poésie’, where de Man finds, in Hölderlin’s radical re-thinking of Schiller’s notion of the Occident, the resource for his distinctive practice of ‘rhetorical reading’ as a form of ideology critique. Many of de Man’s essays from different periods have a great deal to say about social and political life, but they have to be read attentively.
Cornell University, New York
Vol. 10 No. 16 · 15 September 1988
From Juliet Flower MacCannell
I have provided you separately with photocopies of the documents I cited in my letter of 7 June to which Professor Derrida (Letters, 4 August) has taken exception. The first, re the 1939 de Man letter, appears as an extract provided by the diligent Belgian researcher Ortwin de Graef (‘Aspects of the Context of Paul de Man’s Earliest Publications’) and appended to the copies of the hundred and seventy articles de Man wrote for Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land that Mr de Graef furnished. The question of its authenticity should ultimately be addressed to him. The quotation reads: Intéressez-vous d’avantage aux hommes, me dîtes vous. Comment donc, si je m’y intéresse; ils me passionnent, mais uniquement aussi longtemps que je reste détaché, non lié, non polarisé.
The second, the Culler citation, appears in a paper he wrote for the Irvine conference, ‘Humanities Centres and the Reconfiguration of Knowledge’. The full citation is on pages 4-5: ‘A major goal of the humanities, it seems to me, ought to be the elimination of the social sciences, which consume valuable resources to little purpose.’ He goes on to state that the ‘more interesting aspects of social thought’ have been ‘taken over’ by ‘people working in humanities departments’, which may or may not be the case: the eliminees might wish to participate in that judgment. It also leaves the status of that ‘social thought’ – my real question – an open issue.
Finally, Professor Derrida’s comments were tape-recorded and hopefully could be reconstructed competently. I was aware that they referred to his role in constituting the fine institution that the Collège is; I was not aware that he made a sharp distinction between that activity and his writing and thought.
In the end, I found Professor Derrida’s last sentence obscure, and have discovered three ways to read it. The first, intoned as ‘I will answer, not her,’ has him taking the task of answering the question out of my incompetent hands. The second, intoned ‘I will answer: not her,’ has him saying that he will come forth and respond but will not address the response to me, the direct object of the verb. The third, which is presumably what he expected to mean, ‘I will answer: not her,’ is that we cannot believe ‘J.F. MacCannell’.
Juliet Flower MacCannell
University of California, Irvine