- Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminars and Other Papers by Paul de Man, edited by E.S. Burt, Kevin Newmark and Andrzej Warminski
Johns Hopkins, 212 pp, £21.50, March 1993, ISBN 0 8018 4461 4
- Serenity in Crisis: A Preface to Paul de Man 1939-1960 by Ortwin de Graef
Nebraska, 240 pp, £29.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 8032 1694 7
The guru differs from the sage in point of approachability. To experience the sage, you must have read his work; the meeting may come later, and may disappoint. With the guru, personal contact matters most and the first encounter must succeed; the writing need only offer a clue to the presence. Paul de Man said enough memorable things to be quoted like scripture by the susceptible, and one of the things he said was about quotation: Citer, c’est penser. It is fair to conclude that in his last years he was a guru. The effects can be felt in his writing. But he kept talking to those outside the inner circle, as many in such a position do not; and his long career of teaching (at Harvard, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Yale) has a satisfying continuity. If his deepest admirers included a few more who did not know him in the classroom, he might qualify as a hermetic late instance of the Continental sage.
What was his wisdom? He was interested in knowledge, self-knowledge above all. He believed that most pretenders to knowledge were ‘deluded’, and was convinced that literature must be unique in the knowledge it afforded, or else in giving a master-clue to the delusion of every sort of knowledge including its own. A stance like his might plausibly lead away from the study of literature, into politics for example, or the study of philosophy or psychology. Yet he appears by temperament to have been peculiarly suited to the study of texts – a word he did much to bring into vogue in literature departments. The most marked traits of his writing are dialectical ingenuity and finish, a stoical indifference to matters of personality and a mandarin arrogance of opinion. His thinking, however, in the Sixties and early Seventies, was notable for certain idealisms: the hope that out of the self-doubt that writing performs a spiritual discipline might emerge; and the belief that the truest source of the discipline could be found in Romantic autobiography, where the hero is composed of several earlier selves and the reader comes to know the distance between all experience and all writing.
Deconstruction was the acid bath that burned away the idealisms. ‘Fast’ deconstruction had long been the extracurricular resort of clever or bored philosophers; as in William James’s Hegelian revelation under the effects of laughing gas: ‘What’s mistake but a kind of take?’ De Man had broached the idea in his first book. Blindness and Insight (1971). In Allegories of Reading (1979), the only other book he lived to publish, he made a more systematic claim: ‘A literary text simultaneously asserts and denies the authority of its own rhetorical mode.’ If I assure you that we can examine the truth of the matter ‘in the light of common day’, you may recall that the phrase comes from a poem by Wordsworth, where common day is a metaphor for death, and so in trying to say that we live by truth I have told you that we die by truth. Most people would probably conclude that we can sort out the complications as they come, but de Man replied: there is no escape from the grip of metaphor. Every literary text makes a claim both of empirical control and of imaginative distortion; but its hope of meaning neither too little nor too much is defeated from the start. Up to a point, this may feel like sceptical good sense. To get the queer flavour of de Man you must see how it feels when made to consist with an utter denial of personal agency. It is not we who use language, it is language that uses us.
The view has curious implications for speech-acts like promises and apologies. If I tell you, as Rousseau told the reader of his Confessions, how piercing my remorse is at a particular act of theft or lying, the result may be to make you excuse me more conscientiously and admire me more insinuatingly than you could have done without the report. And that was the reverse of my hope in telling the story. Or was it? Intention is beside the point for de Man; the uncertainty he stresses has the character of an impersonal law. Writing, once it comes into relation with life, makes it ‘possible to face up to any experience (to excuse any guilt), because the experience always exists simultaneously as fictional discourse and as empirical event and it is never possible to decide which one of the two possibilities is the right one.’ His early emphasis on consciousness and knowledge had fostered an appreciation of the writer for the sake of the writing. The later emphasis on ‘suspicion’ and ‘texts’ holds on to the writing alone, for the sake of its obedience to a pattern. In seeing the same experiment repeated from author to author, the critic aims to be satisfied the way a scientist is satisfied.
Vol. 15 No. 21 · 4 November 1993
From Victoria Richardson
David Bromwich’s piece on Paul de Man (LRB, 7 October) was the best ever written on the subject, but Bromwich omitted one of the crucial factors in the rise of de Man’s reputation. Much of the academic worship of de Man resulted from the fact that he was, in the most precise sense of the word, a mind-fucker.
I knew many of his victims among the female graduate students at Yale. De Man seduced their psyches with a tenacity more rapacious than any his less imaginative colleagues used in trying to possess their bodies. When he told the women in his seminar they would not make the ‘bourgeois errors’ about literature that were made in every other seminar, he thrilled them with the promise of escape from their conventional families. When they felt terrified by their ignorance of psychology, history and ethics, he flattered them with proofs that all those terms were hollow and that their ignorance was the source of their greatest intellectual strength. He flattered their sense of uniqueness by publicly discouraging his most obviously foolish acolytes, and, unlike vulgar physical seducers, he apparently asked for absolutely nothing in return for the vertiginous thrills he provided. What some of his victims still don’t understand is that what they gave was precisely the exoneration that he needed most desperately, because every mind that he seduced to his own emptiness was a mind that had thrown away the instruments by which he might be judged.
Vol. 15 No. 22 · 18 November 1993
From Richard Harrier
I was struck by David Bromwich’s observation (LRB, 7 October) that Paul de Man could find in Wordsworth’s ‘Mutability’ an ‘attainment of the right degree of epistemological doubt’ while overlooking that except for ‘the last few lines … the writing is as hackneyed as any specimen of the poet’s duty-ridden later manner.’ Of course de Man was eager to reach the pretext for problematical musings by his very temperament, as Bromwich convincingly shows. But there is also the notorious instance of the problem de Man made out of the last line of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’: ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’
There are two conditions about the de Man case not sufficiently stressed, even here. First of all, English was probably de Man’s fourth or fifth language. He probably grew up speaking Dutch, German, French and perhaps Flemish. De Man published in Flemish. It would be enlightening to know whether he wrote that article himself or whether he needed to have it translated for publication. In any case de Man was deaf to the nuances of English, and therefore found it easy to take refuge in irrelevant problem-making. The other factor is de Man’s sense of cultural exile. My guess is that his acceptance of German hegemony in the historical continuum was based upon a conviction of the superiority of German culture and its language. He could feel only a condescending and limited curiosity about English experiments in what were essentially Continental movements.
In his fascinating – and neglected – study, The Triumph of the English Language, R.F. Jones notes that English antiquaries of the 17th century ‘were indebted to a more or less conscious movement in most of the Germanic countries, a movement slightly prophetic of the Nazis’. ‘The Germans and all things German’ were ‘extravagantly praised’ by first of all citing Tacitus on the virtuous German character. This movement reached its peak in the work of John Van Gorp, a Flemish physician (1518-72), who went so far as to claim that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was German, and that the Old Testament was first composed in pure German, only to be muddied by Hebrew translation. No doubt de Man’s necessarily troubled admiration of German poets and philosophers was more soberly based, but it was pervasive nevertheless. What Bromwich calls de Man’s ‘odd deficiency of verbal tact’ in his readings of English writers does not seem – at least to me – at all odd.
Columbia University, New York
Vol. 15 No. 24 · 16 December 1993
From Ortwin de Graef
If Richard Harrier (Letters, 18 November) wants to indulge in philologico-political innuendo, he should get his facts straight. He complains that ‘even’ (sic) in David Bromwich’s account of ‘the de Man case’, two ‘conditions’ have not yet been sufficiently stressed. First, the ‘condition’ that ‘English was probably de Man’s fourth or fifth language,’ since he ‘probably grew up speaking Dutch, German, French and perhaps Flemish’. A minimal amount of research should have enabled Harrier to realise that Flemish is that variety of Dutch spoken in the southern part of the Dutch speech-area (itself comprising the Netherlands and the northern part of Belgium). For the record: de Man grew up speaking Flemish (his native language) and French (the then culturally dominant language in Belgium); German and English he would have been taught in school. To what extent this may have accounted for de Man’s alleged ‘deaf[ness] to the nuances of English’ is a question best addressed by those who are not themselves arrogantly deaf to the history of Germanic languages. As it is, Harrier would still have to demonstrate that de Man’s comments on Wordsworth and Yeats are indeed exercises in ‘irrelevant problem-making’.
The second ‘condition’ involves ‘de Mans’sense of cultural exile’: Harrier’s ‘guess is that [de Man’s] acceptance of German hegemony in the historical continuum was based upon a conviction of the superiority of German culture and its language.’ Instead of substantiating this guess by anything remotely resembling relevant textual evidence, Harrier lakes off at a tangent invoking, via R.F. Jones, 17th-century English antiquaries’ indebtedness ‘to a more or less conscious movement in most of the Germanic countries, a movement slightly prophetic of the Nazis’ in its ‘extravagant praise’, corroborated by ‘citing Tacitus on the virtuous German character’, for ‘the Germans and all things German’. Harrier then homes in on the work of ‘John Van Gorp, a Flemish physician (1518-72), who went so far as to claim that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was German, and that the Old Testament was first composed in pure German, only to be muddied by Hebrew translation.’ Harrier acknowledges that de Man’s ‘necessarily troubled admiration of German poets and philosophers was more soberly based’, but adds that ‘it was pervasive nevertheless.’ I am not quite certain what to make of this ‘nevertheless’, but it does seem to suggest that to admire Goethe and Hölderlin is somehow to be guilty by implication of sinister silliness such as that imputed to ‘John Van Gorp’. (Incidentally, as his name indicates, Jan van Gorp hailed from Gorp, near Hilvarenbeek, which makes him Dutch, not Flemish, though he spent much of his time in Flanders. The word ‘van’, I might add, is Dutch for ‘of’ or ‘from’, and like ‘de’ in de Man or even de Graef, is generally capitalised in non-initial position only according to a mistaken assumption that to use a lower case indicates noble descent – but that is another story.)
The irony, however, is that Jan van Gorp, aka Johannes Goropius Becanus (in accordance with the Humanist habit of Latinising proper names), did not claim, pace Jones, that ‘German’ was the original Edenic language: instead, he argued, having recourse to spurious etymologies, that this original language was ‘Diets’, a word that still transpires in the German for ‘German’ (Deutsch) and the English for ‘Dutch’ (Nederlands, in Dutch), but which in Becanus’ usage designated the language of the Low Countries as distinct from Latin, German and French dialects. (More recently, the term has been reserved for the register of usually right-wing ideologues who seek the dissolution of Belgium and reunification with the Netherlands, a movement that de Man, for one, explicitly rejected in his war-time journalism.) As there was no standard language in the Low Countries in the 16th century, Becanus further specified in his 1569 Origines Antwerpianae that genuine ‘Diets’ was the language spoken in Antwerp: the people of Antwerp were the true descendants of Japheth, whose tribe was not present when the Tower was built, and their language was consequently untouched by the confusion of Babel.
If, therefore, de Man had been guided by anything like Harrier’s scenario, he should have propagated the superiority, not of German thought and literature but of his own native Antwerp – in practical terms, this could have entailed promoting the work of his great-grandfather, the mediocre but highly popular Romantic poet Jan van Beers (1821-88). His authoritative source would not have been Tacitus but more properly Caesar: ‘Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae.’ The only problem being that these ‘Belgians’ were predominantly Celts, related to those that had moved to England in the first century BC. Here, then, is a new hypothesis which Harrier might want to ponder: perhaps the real reason why de Man was deaf to the nuances of English is that he was actually Irish. And we all know what that means: fear the neighbourhood of that unstable Celtic blood.
Ortwin de Graef
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
From Gert Buelens
Richard Harrier claims that de Man ‘published in Flemish’, and wonders ‘whether he wrote that article himself or whether he needed to have it translated for publication’. The observation and query display a lack of familiarity with the Belgian linguistic situation that is, alas, widespread, extending even to the authoritative American Heritage Dictionary, which misleadingly defines Flemish as ‘the West Germanic language of the Flemings’. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers a better though incomplete definition: ‘the Dutch language used by the Flemings’.
The confusion is due to the fact that two uses of the term co-exist; they should, however, be kept apart. First, the various spoken local dialects of Northern Belgium (e.g. of Ostend, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Louvain) taken as a group are sometimes – very loosely – called Flemish; in fact the dialect of Ostend is linguistically more properly categorised as a West Flemish one, that of Louvain as a Brabant one. Secondly, the written and spoken Dutch language, officially used in Northern Belgium since 1898 and taught at school as the mother-tongue since 1932, is also sometimes labelled Flemish. But the latter is more often simply called Dutch (Nederlands), as it distinguishes itself from the Dutch spoken and written in the Netherlands mainly by a few differences of vocabulary, largely reflecting distinctive institutional forms. A parallel would be the distinction between the standard German of Germany and that of Austria (not Switzerland, where a highly distinct Swiss-German standard language exists), though Austrian German would seem to be marked by a separate standard of pronunciation. In Flanders, the confusion Flemish/Dutch is exacerbated by the fact that many people try to use standard Dutch, but cannot avoid betraying their various local dialects, often unwittingly, through their pronunciation, word order, idiom etc.
As to de Man, Ortwin de Graef has already commented, in the University of Nebraska’s Responses, on his early linguistic situation, which he calls ‘a complicated form of pseudodiglossia’. De Man grew up a member of a well-to-do Antwerp family, speaking both the local dialect and French, which continues to this day as the standard language of a sizeable part of the Flemish bourgeoisie. At school (the Antwerp atheneum) he would have witnessed the introduction of Dutch as the standard language, at first still vying with French, the former standard. He went on to study at the francophone Université Libre de Bruxelles from 1937. These facts taken together would explain why de Man’s ten contributions to the Dutch-language Het Vlaamsche Land were marked by an insecure and inaccurate Dutch that betrayed the Antwerp dialect he was more familiar with, and why he felt more at ease writing in French, say for Le Soir.