On 1 December 1987 the New York Times ran a piece under the title ‘Yale Scholar’s Articles Found in Nazi Paper’. The scholar in question was the late Paul de Man, who had written these pieces during the early Forties before leaving Belgium for America. They were published in Le Soir, a newspaper of pro-Nazi sympathies, and contain many passages that can be read as endorsing what amounts to a collaborationist line. There is talk of the need to preserve national cultures against harmful ‘cosmopolitan’ influences; of the Jewish element in modern thought as a threat to this healthy condition; and of German literature as a model for those other, less fortunate traditions that lack such a strong national base. Their language often resorts to organicist metaphors, notions of cultural identity as rooted in the soil of a flourishing native literature. One could draw comparisons with a work like Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, where it is likewise argued that the vitality of ‘satellite’ traditions (for de Man, crucially, the French, Dutch and Belgian) must depend on the continuing existence of a strong hegemonic centre. But of course de Man was writing at a time and in a political situation where thoughts of this kind carried a far more dangerous charge. These texts are utterly remote from de Man’s subsequent writings, not only in their crudity of utterance and sentiment, but also in the way that they uncritically endorse such mystified ideas as the organic relation between language, culture and national destiny, ideas which he would later ‘deconstruct’ with such extreme sceptical vigilance.
Though their existence remained a secret all those years, de Man would, I think, have acknowledged their discovery with the attitude scripta manent: that what is written is written and cannot be tactfully ignored, no matter how far his convictions had changed in the interim. But there are several points that should be made at once against the current chorus of blame. One is that the articles have been mined for passages that show him up in the worst possible light, often by being juxtaposed with other items from Le Soir whose content bears no relation to anything that de Man wrote. Another is the fact that he produced these pieces under intense pressures of political and personal circumstance. His uncle, Hendrik de Man, was a Belgian socialist thinker during the Twenties and Thirties, a government minister whose two terms of office had been marked by numerous disappointments and policy setbacks. His response to the catastrophe of German occupation was to draw up a last-ditch tactical plan, arguing that Nazism might, after all, evolve into something like a genuine National Socialism, and that therefore the only course open was to pin one’s hope to that saving possibility and not hold out against the occupying forces. His biographer, Peter Dodge, traces all the tortuous visions and revisions that led up to this ultimate misjudgment. He sees Hendrik de Man as a tragic figure, forced into exile (and convicted of treason in his absence), not so much through opportunism, compromise or worse, as through a desperate attempt to re-interpret history in the light of his residual socialist faith. Paul de Man was clearly not in a position where any pronouncements of his would take on such a burden of fateful consequence. But it is fair to conjecture that he thought the only prospect of survival for the Belgian people, languages and culture lay in making terms (at least temporarily) with the fact of German occupation, and hoping that National Socialism might indeed be ‘re-interpreted’ in a more favourable light. Again, this is not to excuse those early writings, but to see how they might have been produced by a thinker whose subsequent reflections took such a different path.
For this is what will strike any reader acquainted with the texts that de Man published after his passage to America. One could view this entire subsequent production as an attempt to exorcise the bad memory, to adopt a critical standpoint squarely opposed to that mystified philosophy of language, tradition and organic national culture. Of course it is possible to argue the opposite case, to declare with the wisdom of hindsight that deconstruction was always a ‘nihilist’ activity, that its politics were clearly reactionary, if not protofascist, and that these latest revelations merely confirm what should have been evident from the start. Already the professors are lining up to make statements to this or similar effect. Thus R.W.B. Lewis: ‘deconstruction is antihistorical ... it encourages scepticism about almost anything in the realm of human experience.’ Meanwhile de Man’s colleagues, ex-students and friends have registered a pained and baffled response, finding the articles totally at odds with their knowledge of him in later years. In what follows I have no wish either to minimise the disturbing impact of those early pieces, or to argue that they are simply unconnected with everything he went on to write. Nor can I speak with any firsthand knowledge of his personal qualities as teacher, colleague and intellectual mentor, although a recent volume of tributes (Yale French Studies, 1985) bears eloquent witness in this regard. I want to suggest rather that opponents like Lewis get the lesson completely upside down: that deconstruction evolved, in de Man’s case at least, as a form of rigorous ideological critique directed against precisely that seductive will to treat language and culture as organic, quasi-natural products rooted in the soil of some authentic native tradition. It is important to set the record straight, not least because these latest assaults on de Man have come mainly from critics who evince little knowledge of his subsequent work.
It has often been argued by hostile commentators – among them, Frank Lentricchia – that deconstruction is just a species of ‘textualist’ mystification, a last-ditch retreat from politics and history into the realm of evasive rhetorical strategies. Now this charge has a certain plausibility when applied to those early and middle-period essays of de Man (like ‘Wordsworth and Hölderlin’) where poetry and politics are treated as in some sense antithetical terms. Thus Wordsworth’s narrative of his youthful involvement with revolutionary events in France is read, not only as a chapter in the poet’s subsequent, revisionist account of his own experience, but as a model instance of how poetry works to chasten and subdue such misguided hopes. And this pattern is repeated elsewhere in de Man’s work, often with the same series of implications: that all authentic poetry is the outcome of prolonged reflective self-knowledge; that all political involvements are the upshot of impulsive, unreflecting action; and that criticism is therefore best occupied in drawing out those ‘allegories’ of frustrated hope or non-fulfilment that constitute poetry’s chief lesson in the reading of political events. Such I take to be the coded affirmation, the underlying ‘point’, of those early essays. It is a reading that finds at least a measure of support in what we learn of Hendrik de Man and the fortunes of Belgian socialist politics in the immediate pre-war period. It is hardly surprising, in the light of such experience, that Paul de Man’s work should at this stage evince a strong mistrust of activist creeds, an insistence on the virtues of reflective non-involvement, and an ironic stance toward political events that at times leans over into downright cynicism.
But there is another aspect of those early essays which this reading leaves out of account. It has to do with de Man’s principled rejection of any thinking that claims to go straight to the truth or the heart of the matter, without leaving room for such reflective afterthoughts as might serve to indicate the dangers involved. We may recall, in this connection, his diagnostic reading of Heidegger’s commentaries on Hölderlin, especially his point that Heidegger misinterprets – indeed ‘violates’ – his texts exactly in so far as he wants them to state what can only be shadowed forth obliquely in a mode of self-denying or negative assertion. As de Man writes in a crucial passage: ‘The ineffable demands the direct adherence and the blind and violent passion with which Heidegger treats his texts. Mediation, on the other hand, implies a reflection that tends toward a critical language as systematic and rigorous as possible, but not overly eager to make claims of certainty that it can substantiate only in the long run.’ Again, one can read these words as recommending that thought renounce the temptations of real-world commitment, that it withdraw into a realm of inward, ironic detachment where those temptations would no longer be able to exert their seductive appeal. The passage would then go to confirm all the charges that Lentricchia brings against de Man. But this is to ignore both the evidence of de Man’s later writings on the topic of aesthetic ideology, and the pressured situation to which he was responding at the time of these early texts. For it was Heidegger whose thinking had led to the point of equating ‘authentic’ philosophy with the interests of a single, self-privileged national culture; who had identified truth with the unveiling of a temporal destiny whose origin lay in the sources of Greek (pre-Socratic) speculative thought, and whose signs were now there to be read in the texts of German poetry and philosophy. And it was also the question of Heidegger’s conduct in the years of the Nazi ascent to power that had posed most starkly the whole vexed issue of how far philosophers, from Nietzsche down, had paved the way for National Socialist ideology. At least one can say that Heidegger, and especially Heidegger’s readings of Rilke and Hölderlin, presented de Man with a challenge whose terms were inescapably marked by the shadow of recent historical and political events.
There has, naturally, been much debate as to just how far Heidegger’s thinking was complicit with the purposes of Nazi cultural propaganda. Then again, it is agreed among his commentators that there occurred a decisive ‘turn’ (Kehre) in Heidegger’s thought, a movement away from the kind of appropriative reading that strikes de Man as a form of hermeneutic ‘violence’. This change led Heidegger to stress the need for a self-denying openness (Gelassenheit) to meanings and values that lay beyond the grasp of our modern, rationalistic, ‘enlightened’ understanding. The texts on Hölderlin to which de Man makes reference were written over the period from 1939 to 1954, a period which spans not only the war years but also – significantly – Heidegger’s ‘turn’ towards this new, less assertive or culture-specific way of reading. So it is simplifying matters to treat de Man’s essay as a direct response to those elements in Heidegger’s thought that lent themselves directly to the purposes of nationalist propaganda. But we shall also do less than justice to de Man’s early essays if we ignore – like Lentricchia – that aspect of his thinking which does hold out against the mystifying power of organicist creeds and ideologies. For this is precisely what de Man resists in Heidegger’s readings of Hölderlin: the impulse to identify revealed poetic truth with the power of language – preeminently the German language – to articulate the nature of Being itself. For Heidegger, ‘the essence [Wesen] of what is named [Being] is revealed in the word. By naming Being’s essence, the word separates the essential from the non-essential (or the absolute from the contingent: das Wesen vom Unwesen).’ For de Man, on the contrary, this reading amounts to a reversal, a determinate negation of what Hölderlin actually says. The poet may experience this gulf between desire and fulfilment as the ‘anguishing question’ that impels all authentic thought: ‘how can one not only speak of Being, but say Being itself?’ But when Heidegger finds an affirmative response in Hölderlin’s texts – when he reads them as stating the essence of Being in a mode of self-present, demonstrative truth – he can do so only through an act of hermeneutic ‘violence’ that ignores all the signs of a contrary meaning. Thus, according to de Man, ‘as soon as the word is uttered, it destroys the immediate and discovers that instead of stating Being, it can only state mediation.’
It is in de Man’s resistance to this appropriative drive in Heidegger’s reading that we can make out the earliest signs of his own distinct ‘turn’ toward a form of implicit ideological critique. This conjecture finds support – albeit obliquely – in some recent research by the Belgian scholar Ortwin de Graef. For it emerges that de Man in fact produced a quantity of published work during the period 1938-40, a time when he was studying at the Free University in Brussels, having enrolled first for courses in Civil Engineering, then switched to Chemistry and finally opted for Social Sciences. His articles (mostly short review-essays) appeared in two journals, Les Cahiers du Libre Examen and Het Vlaamsche Land (‘The Flemish Land’). The books he was given to review were mostly in the area of literary history, aesthetics and comparative literature. And among the main themes that run through these articles is the question of national identity, of European culture and the place within it of the various literatures – especially the German and the French – whose destiny de Man regards as closely interlinked. In fact, there are two strains of thought at work in these essays, and between them they generate signs of unmistakable conflict and tension. One is the idea of national traditions as existing ideally in a state of complementary or mutually enriching exchange. Thus he writes (in a passage cited by de Graef) that the future of civilised values must rest on a faith in ‘national personality as a valuable condition and a precious possession’, along with a will ‘to unite the creative forces of all European states’. But elsewhere one finds the argument that these various national cultures can best take a lead from German writers, artists and intellectuals, since it is their particular virtue – in so far as they are ‘authentically’ German – to have given the most articulate expression to this sense of cultural nationhood. And in advancing this case, de Man’s rhetoric strays more than once onto dangerous ground of ‘blood and soil’, of cultural identity as rooted in a sense of predestined (organic) development which can only be asserted over and against all rival nationalist claims.
De Graef takes note of these discomforting metaphors, but also points out that they possessed at this time nothing like the charge of ideological meaning that we may now be tempted to read back into them. Any hint of ‘ambivalence’ in de Man’s thinking must at all events be seen in the context of a Belgian nation already subject to deep linguistic and cultural divisions, and whose very existence was now threatened by German imperialist designs. As with his uncle’s tortuous attempts to save at least some remnant of the socialist ideal by drastically re-interpreting history and politics, so one can read Paul de Man’s earliest essays as a search for some conceivable way forward from this stark and appalling reality. Nevertheless, the main impression left by these texts is of just how remarkably little they have in common with the writings that began to appear some ten years later in Critique and other French-language journals. Thus de Graef comments on the ‘enormous distance’ that de Man had travelled in the interim, a distance marked chiefly by his total rejection of organicist models and metaphors. ‘In 1942, de Man sees literature as an expression of a specific national disposition which can profitably be used as one kind of reliable historical material for the deduction of “a general idea about the destiny of mankind”.’ Nothing could be further from his subsequent attitude of extreme scepticism with regard to all totalising notions of history, all attempts to bypass the problems of attentive close-reading through an appeal to some overt or tacit analogy between historical knowledge and the ‘hermeneutic circle’ of achieved understanding. Such was indeed, as de Man came to think, the principal source of that aesthetic ideology that worked to naturalise the delusions of organicist thinking.
Perhaps the most revealing text in this connection is his essay ‘The Temptation of Permanence’, the French original of which first appeared in 1955. This text marks a definite transitional stage in de Man’s work, not only in so far as it reflects obliquely on his move from Europe to America, but also in the sense of profoundly revaluing those ideals and influences that had shaped his early thought. The essay can be read as a companion-piece to ‘Heidegger’s Exegeses of Hölderlin’, since it finds de Man once again measuring his distance from any criticism that claims to interpret poetry in a language of unmediated truth or proximity to Being. Such is indeed the ‘temptation of permanence’ that manifests itself as the desire to have done with all mediating secular interests – like those of politics and history – and so pass directly to the kind of authentic, primordial concern that finds an answering voice in poetry.
For Heidegger, the antithesis of these values is to be seen in modern technological civilisation, in a process of accelerating secular change that alienates man from nature and destroys the very grounds of remembrance. De Man cites some passages from Heidegger’s later writings where poetry figures as the one potential source of a wisdom that can yet hold out against this drift toward oblivion, and thus offer hope of restoring mankind to a proper relationship with nature and Being. ‘Poetically, man dwells,’ as Heidegger writes in a sentence drawn from Hölderlin that provides the starting-point for one of his best-known meditations on the name and nature of poetry. Through poetry, one glimpses the possibility of an unforced, authentic being-in-the-world that enables man to experience once again that sense of rootedness in time and place that is lost through the will to subjugate nature to the purposes of human technological control. It is this capacity for ‘dwelling’ within language, for inhabiting a world that reveals itself gradually to contemplative thought, and cannot be grasped through any kind of restless, self-interested striving after knowledge – it is this mode of wise receptivity that Heidegger identifies with the saving power of poetry. Only by listening patiently to such language can we hope to regain the sense of that primordial destiny whose signs have been persistently ignored or misread by thinkers from Socrates to the present.
‘The Temptation of Permanence’ is a diagnostic reading of Heidegger’s texts that questions this idea of poetry as somehow giving access to a timeless, aboriginal truth. For it now appears to de Man that such thinking has a dangerous aspect, a tendency to promote forms of mystified understanding whose effects are not confined to the realm of aesthetic speculation. For Heidegger, as he remarks, language takes on a power of etymological suggestion that can easily translate into a nationalist mystique with potentially far-reaching effects. ‘Relying on the relation, in the German language, between the word “destiny” (Geschick) and the word “history” (Geschichte), he affirmed in various ways that history is the concrete manifestation of the very movement of Being, a movement whose fundamental ambiguity is the origin of the historicity of our destiny.’ And this strain of highly-charged etymopoeic reverie goes along with Heidegger’s constant desire to assimilate language to organicist metaphors of origin, growth and natural evolution. Hence the frequent occurrence in his late essays of ‘examples and metaphors borrowed from the life of the earth: the forest, labour, the land etc. The fixed idea seems to be the necessity of protecting the earth, of watching over it as a peasant watches over his fields; technology takes on diabolical proportions in so far as it is the enemy of the earth.’ It is in this sense precisely that Heidegger’s thought manifests the ‘temptation of permanence’, 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. What is always in question for Heidegger is the power of thinking in its genuine, creative or poetic mode to repair the divisions thus inflicted upon human experience. And the metaphors that serve to advance this case – as in the title of Heidegger’s essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, to which de Man makes particular reference – are figures that invite an identification between the process of thought and processes or activities in the physical world that have to do with Man’s relationship to nature. They are tropes intended to reinforce the point that man’s true vocation as a thinking, speaking, listening subject is so closely tied up with his being in the world that only such organicist metaphors can express the truth of his condition.
Now it is a part of the burden of de Man’s argument that these metaphors don’t go together as naturally as Heidegger would have us believe. ‘Building’ and ‘dwelling’ may appear to be aspects of a common enterprise, one that is directed toward furnishing man with a ‘shelter’ whose construction is yet a part of nature, since it enables him, in Heidegger’s words, to ‘dwell on the earth and in his dwelling let the earth be earth’. That is to say: the essential activity of building is one undertaken in natural accord with the conditions – those of our being-in-the-world – that require such constructive enterprise as an aspect of man’s authentic destiny. And the same would apply to creative thinking, in so far as it requires that we hearken to a truth that only language can impart, no matter how far we think to elaborate (‘build’) that truth in verbal constructions of our own apparent creating. It is by means of this complex metaphorical transfer between ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’ – between the constructive and the passive or contemplative aspects of thought – that Heidegger can claim for poetry a power to reconcile all those conflicts and antinomies that plague the discourse of philosophic reason. But it is de Man’s point that this presumed identification is, in fact, the product of a certain linguistic subterfuge: that Heidegger’s claims for the profound unity of ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’ must seem deluded if one reads his text with an eye to its covert rhetorical strategies. For there is all the difference in the world between an act, whether physical or verbal, that issues in the construction of a hitherto non-existent edifice, and a mode of habitation – or poetic ‘dwelling’ – that occupies a place already thus built. Heidegger’s metaphors work to efface this distinction, and along with it the difference between lived history, as a realm of practical choices and decisions, and ‘authentic’ destiny as that which unfolds through a process of quasi-organic evolution.
De Man never goes as far as a thinker like Adorno in condemning the Heideggerian ‘jargon of authenticity’ as a vehicle for the kind of irrationalist mystique whose political expression was the rise of Nazi ideology. His writings continued to engage critically with Heidegger’s thought, but always on the basis of a shared concern with questions de Man finds Heidegger to have raised to a high point of philosophic subtlety. This is clearly why he thinks it so important to distinguish the moments of genuine insight in Heidegger’s readings of Hölderlin or Rilke from the passages where a certain self-motivated ‘blindness’ to the workings of his own rhetoric leads Heidegger to mystify the nature of poetic understanding. And this emphasis emerges in de Man’s writing alongside a shift of geopolitical priorities that begins to discover more hopeful portents in American than in European culture. Thus Heidegger is cast as the ‘authentic’ but none the less deluded voice of a self-proclaimed national destiny, a destiny that is identified all too closely with the German language, its expressive resources, and its power of conserving a threatened truth against the ravages of modern technocratic reason. To de Man, on the contrary, such thinking now appears a species of seductive illusion. ‘It is more dangerous than technical thinking since instead of attacking an earth which is quite capable of defending itself, it betrays the movement of being.’
One might gather from this last formulation that de Man’s language is still in thrall to a strongly Heideggerian thematics of origins, Being and truth. But his point is again that Heidegger falls into error in so far as he thinks that language can articulate such truths in a mode of immediate apprehension that would finally transcend history, reason and the antimonies of conscious thought. Such is de Man’s chief objection to Heidegger’s readings of Hölderlin: that they presume to state explicitly what the poet can only suggest through a language that everywhere acknowledges its own inevitable failure to reconcile these disparate realms. This strikes de Man as a form of hermeneutic violence, a will to penetrate to the truth of a text whose truthfulness lies in its way of avoiding such premature and dangerous absolutes. And in ‘The Temptation of Permanence’ we can see just why – and on what ideological grounds – de Man arrived at this position. Heidegger’s desire to have poetry achieve an authentic overcoming or transcendence of Man’s divided condition is complicit with his will to identify language – and the German language preeminently – with the voice of revealed truth. In both aspects his thinking courts the danger of confusing history with processes of natural evolution and growth, a confusion which de Man was later to track through its numerous showings in the discourse of post-Romantic critical thought.
From a certain point of view – that which de Man espoused in his subsequent writings – one has ‘explained’ nothing by pointing to these likely influences and pressures on his early development. The texts, after all, are there to be read, and indeed no critic has done more than de Man to discourage the kind of lazy or short-cut ‘reading’ that passes clean through the complexities of textual understanding to arrive at some putative psychobiographical content. To this extent, we read in defiance of his own repeated counsel if we respond to the critical rigour of his later texts by asking what might have been the motives, political or otherwise, that led to his adopting the stance they exhibit. Nevertheless I would argue that the two approaches are not incompatible: that we can read those texts with a due regard to their rhetorical and argumentative structures without renouncing all interest in de Man’s intellectual life-history.
In his essay ‘Criticism and Crisis’, de Man himself makes a comparable claim in relation to Husserl and the project of transcendental phenomenology. This project was epitomised in the lectures which Husserl delivered in Vienna in 1935, and which were subsequently published under the title The Crisis of the European Sciences. In them, Husserl laid out the programme of a new philosophy that would finally secure the bases of knowledge, reason and truth; that would combat the threat of an encroaching relativist or nihilist outlook by grounding thought in an apodictic ‘science’ of primordial intuitions immune to further questioning or doubt. He would thus carry through the foundationalist project that others before him (like Descartes and Kant) had attempted but ultimately failed to achieve. And he would do so by suspending all commonsense or merely ‘psychological’ sources of knowledge, by systematically doubting whatever could be called into doubt, and thus working down to the bedrock of epistemological certitude that philosophy and science required. Only by such a radical rethinking of knowledge, its constitutive powers and limits, could European culture be recalled to a sense of its authentic historical destiny.
For de Man, this programme offers a striking case in point of the link between ‘criticism’ and ‘crisis’, a link that is of more than merely etymological interest. For it is always through a certain ‘rhetoric of crisis’ that criticism seeks, like Husserl, to escape the relativity or the partial insights of a previous way of thinking. But such claims can be advanced only by virtue of a certain correlative ‘blindness’ to the limiting conditions that govern their utterance. Thus Husserl speaks, on the one hand, for a universal concept of human reason, for a supra-national community of mind which philosophy can best work to achieve by discounting those merely local or culture-specific differences that would stand in the way of such an ideal consensus. Indeed, his entire project is premised on the faith that this ‘transcendental’ viewpoint can at last be attained, thus refuting the kind of relativist argument that follows from acknowledging the ultimately incommensurable character of different languages and cultures. But this set of claims must be seen to conflict with Husserl’s stress on the fate of European philosophy and science, on the need for a certain highly-developed form of theoretical reason to assert its authority over and against those other, less enlightened or self-critical traditions. Thus ‘Husserl speaks repeatedly of non-European cultures as primitive, pre-scientific and pre-philosophical, myth-dominated and congenitally incapable of the disinterested distance without which there can be no philosophical meditation.’ Such an outlook is implicit in the very structure of Husserlian reflection, in its will to suspend all ideas deriving from the ‘natural’ or common-sense attitude, and to put in their place a more adequate knowledge acquired through rigorous, self-disciplined thought. Clearly there is a sense in which these categories work to endorse the superior vantage-point and privileged destiny of European man. And this despite the fact that, by his own definition, philosophy transcends such limiting cultural perspectives in the quest for ‘eidetic’ or self-evident truths which are accessible to all mankind.
Husserl is thus caught up in precisely that alternating rhythm of ‘blindness’ and ‘insight’ that de Man will go on to analyse at length in his subsequent essays. But in Husserl’s case we can see most clearly what might be the ultimate political stakes of this seeming obsession with textual aporias or moments of rhetorical stress and strain. For it is Husserl’s situation as self-elected spokesman for Europe in its moment of greatest crisis and danger that sets the main terms for de Man’s discussion in these pages. His text reveals ‘with striking clarity the structure of all crisis-determined statements’. It programmatically asserts what cannot be the case according to its own more rigorous logic, or what has to be exempted from critical inspection in order to provide a starting-point for criticism itself. The privilege attaching to ‘European’ values (reason, self-criticism, disinterested enquiry) is the one thing that cannot be called into question without undermining the very rationale of Husserlian phenomenology. Thus ‘the crucial, determining examination on which depends Husserl’s right to call himself, on his own terms, a philosopher, is, in fact, never undertaken. As a European, it seems that Husserl escapes from the necessary self-criticism that is prior to all philosophical truth about the self.’ Yet de Man is not suggesting that this blindness was in any sense avoidable, or that Husserl should stand accused of bad faith on account of his failure to perceive these contradictions. Their significance lies in the fact that Husserl gave voice to a genuine crisis in the European sciences of man, a crisis whose outcome he could hardly anticipate (writing in 1935), but whose conflicts are already deeply inscribed in the character of his project. ‘Since we are speaking of a man of superior good will, it suffices to point to the pathos of such a claim’ – i.e. philosophy’s task of preserving the high destiny of European culture – ‘at a moment when Europe was about to destroy itself as centre in the name of its unwarranted claim to be the centre.’
It is not too much to claim that de Man experienced his own predicament as in some ways closely resembling that of Husserl. In his case also, the very future of European civilisation had presented itself under the aspect of crisis, a crisis that de Man (in his earliest writings) had hoped to see averted through the reconciling power of an authentic meditation on the destiny of national cultures. But this hope had collapsed, and with it his belief that such thinking could offer any prospect of enlightened change. No doubt this sense of failure was intensified by the spectacle of Heidegger’s apparent willingness, at one stage, to identify National Socialism with the resurgence of authentic Being and truth. And one could speculate further that Heidegger’s radical re-interpretation of Husserl – his turn away from the rigours of transcendental critique toward an existential brooding on mortality, finitude, Being and time – came to strike de Man as a dangerous betrayal of Husserl’s original project. At all events, de Man’s own writing would henceforth take on a demystifying rigour more akin to Husserl’s than to anything in Heidegger’s work. And this despite his clear perception (in ‘Criticism and Crisis’) that enlightenment as Husserl understood it – ‘a process by means of which naive assumptions are made available to consciousness by an act of critical self-understanding’ – must always go along with a certain blindness to its own constitutive motives and interests.
For the only way forward, as it now appeared, was to acknowledge this predicament and yet keep faith with the project of enlightened critique. ‘Speaking in what was in fact a state of urgent personal and political crisis about a more general form of crisis, Husserl’s text ... establishes an important truth: the fact that philosophical knowledge can only come into being when it is turned back upon itself ... The rhetoric of crisis states its own truth in the mode of error. It is itself radically blind to the light it emits.’ In this passage, de Man sets out what amounts to a programme for his own critical work over the next two decades. That work will undertake to demystify the sources of aesthetic ideology in its various forms, especially where these lend credence to the illusion of history as a process of predestined organic evolution. It will do so, very much in the manner of Husserl, by as far as possible suspending such naturalised habits of thought, exposing them to the kind of lucid critique that draws out their unacknowledged blind-spots of prejudice. But de Man also preserves a keen sense of the structural irony that emerges in his reading of Husserl: namely, the tendency of all such ‘enlightened’ or demystifying projects to posit another, naive or deluded, state of consciousness against which to play off their own superior insights. Hence, on the one hand, de Man’s insistence that all critical thinking – his own included – partakes of a certain constitutive ‘blindness’ in relation to the text it seeks to comprehend. Hence also his refusal of the constant temptation to evade this negative knowledge by ignoring textual or rhetorical complications and thus claiming access to truths of experience untouched by critical self-doubt. This is the temptation that Husserl falls into when, writing as a European’, he assumes a standpoint of superior cognitive grasp and so exempts his own discourse from the kind of sceptical scrutiny which alone might justify its philosophic claims.
In his late essays de Man returns to the model of the classical trivium, the discipline that incorporated logic, grammar and rhetoric, agruing that rhetoric has long been demoted to a merely ancillary position on account of its power to disrupt or unsettle the certitudes of philosophical reason. And his heightened sensitivity to the virtues of rhetorical close-reading coincided with his move from Europe to America and his encounter with the New Criticism in its most productive and stimulating moment. That these facts are not unconnected is clear enough from his retrospective comments on the New Criticism in ‘The Return to Philology’ (1982). What most impressed him was its in-built resistance to premature absolutes: ‘Mere reading, it turns out, prior to any theory, is able to transform critical discourse in a manner that would appear deeply subversive to those who think of the teaching of literature as a substitute for the teaching of theology, ethics, psychology, or intellectual history. Close reading accomplishes this often in spite of itself because it cannot fail to respond to structures of language which it is the more or less secret aim of literary teaching to keep hidden.’ At this time de Man was clearly in a state of maximum alert against any temptation to bypass those rhetorical checks and resistances that stood opposed to the seductions of aesthetic ideology. And his subsequent writings give evidence enough of his determination to maintain this stance through a sequence of increasingly complex theoretical positions.
His passage to America can therefore be seen as a turning-point in his intellectual history. It marked his transition from a strongly Eurocentric standpoint – one still characterised by a deep, if ambivalent regard for the writings of Husserl, Heidegger and phenomenological criticism – to a stress on the virtues of textual close-reading and on rhetoric as the chief and most reliable means of exposing the blind-spots engendered by that same tradition. In ‘Crisis and Criticism’ de Man asks pointedly just why Husserl should have drawn such sharp geo-political limits to the otherwise (and in principle) universal spread of enlightened critical thought. ‘Why this expansion should have chosen to stop, once and for ever, at the Atlantic Ocean and at the Caucasus, Husserl does not say.’ And the same question is raised in ‘The Temptation of Permanence’, where there develops a kind of dialectical agon between Europe and America, the latter conceived as a land of open possibilities unburdened by the sense of cultural destiny that bears down so heavily on European thinkers. Thus de Man cites a passage from Rilke, also taken up by Heidegger, in which the poet complains that ‘from America have come to us now empty, indifferent things, artificial things which deceive us by simulating life ... A house, or an apple tree, or a grapevine has nothing in common with the house, the fruit or the grape in which our ancestors have invested their hopes and cares.’ These sentiments chime with Heidegger’s contempt for American civilisation, in particular those two aspects of it – technology and pragmatism as a home-grown philosophic creed – which he saw as symptoms of well-nigh terminal decline. But de Man responds to these charges by suggesting that ‘perhaps in the degree to which technology is impoverishment and burns history without leaving material residue, technology forces us to rid ourselves of what is after all only a false serenity.’ Rilke’s and Heidegger’s ancestral dreams would then appear not only as wishful illusions but as symptoms of a deep-laid conservative mystique inimical to history and change.
In his last few years of concentrated activity, de Man laid plans for a detailed study of Marx, Adorno, Althusser and other such thinkers in the tradition of radical Ideologiekritik. It is possible that some of these texts may yet be published, or at least that sufficient material exists to reconstruct the main outlines of de Man’s argument. But on the basis of those writings we do possess it is clear that his work had long been directed toward problems in exactly this area. The articles in Le Soir will no doubt continue to be seized upon by those anxious to discredit that work and save themselves the trouble of reading his more difficult and representative texts. They might be given pause by what Derrida writes in Mémoires, his volume of lectures in tribute to de Man, first delivered at Irvine in 1984. Here Derrida meditates on the themes of mourning, memory and historical understanding, on ‘what could be considered Paul de Man’s relation to the “political”, to what we tranquilly and commonly call politics, to his “experience” of the thing’. The lectures were given at a time when he presumably had no knowledge of de Man’s early writings in Le Soir, a fact that may seem to render their testimony less than compelling. But if one reads them alongside Derrida’s latest writings on Nietzsche and Heidegger, there emerges a pattern of thought about language, politics, historical destiny and the ethics of writing and interpretation – questions that connect at every point with Derriod’s reading of de Man.
It is impossible to offer any useful brief account of these texts, the more so since Anglo-American commentators have remained, on the whole, stubbornly unresponsive to the ethical dimension of Derrida’s writing. But he does make the point that thinkers must always be held accountable for subsequent, ‘politicised’ uses of their writing; that even though their words may be taken out of context, ‘misread’ or subjected to acts of hermeneutic violence, nevertheless such readings are to some extent allowed for – even ‘programmed’ in advance – by what these authors actually wrote. At the same time he argues that intentions can never know their ends, that texts may indeed be enlisted in the service of political creeds which the writers in question would have found both contemptible and remote from their own ideas. And this leads Derrida to reflect on the radical ambivalence of Heidegger’s project, the way that any such appeal to language – one particular, self-privileged national language – may turn out to betray its best insights through a kind of inbuilt fatality. Thus he notes how de Man, in Allegories of Reading, takes the well-known sentence of Heidegger, Die Sprache spricht – ‘language speaks’ – and changes it to read Die Sprache verspricht (sich), or (approximately rendered) ‘language necessarily undoes itself to the extent that no intention can entirely govern its meaning or effects.’
Again, Derrida is far from suggesting that Heidegger was ultimately not responsible for what he wrote at this time or that his ill-famed inaugural speech as Rector of Freiburg University – the occasion on which he came closest to identifying the destiny of German and European culture with the fortunes of National Socialism – was a mere aberration brought about by effects of linguistic undecidability. But he does ask us to read these texts as the shadow-side of a quest for language in its authentic, truth-telling aspect, a quest whose fateful consequences Heidegger could scarcely have foreseen. And it is clear that Derrida’s thinking on this topic is much indebted to those chapters in Allegories of Reading where de Man strives to articulate the relation between language, history, politics and the realm of as-yet unrealised future possibility. ‘The upheaval of history.’ as Derrida writes in Mémoires,
is clearly what determines what happens to the Sprechen (let us say the Heideggerian Sprechen, that of die Sprache spricht) when it must, always already, give itself up to and be affected by the versprechen. This cannot happen to it; from the origin on, it is destined to it; this is its destination, even though the versprechen threatens destination in it ... These accidents are essential, they do not happen to theSprechen from the outside.
It is possible to read such passages now as applying not only to Heidegger’s ill-fated utterances but also to those early articles of de Man whose existence was at this time unrumoured. In fact, there are interesting comparisons to be drawn between the text of Derrida’s recent work on Heidegger (De l’Esprit, 1987) and his commemorative lectures on de Man. What he writes about the fateful ‘drift’ of Heideggerian reflection, its tendency to become ‘disturbed, corrupted, perverted, affected’ by forces beyond its control, is very close to de Man’s often cryptic formulations in Allegories of Reading. And these passages seem all the more charged and ironic when read in the knowledge that de Man was himself engaged in a painful and prolonged reckoning with his own past errors.
De Man’s case is different from Heidegger’s, in the sense that his articles in Le Soir are strikingly untypical of everything he went on to write, whereas Heidegger’s espousal of National Socialism – however brief and highly qualified in retrospect – does bear an obvious kinship to his lifelong meditation on language, culture and the destiny of authentic thought. What Derrida’s reading most pointedly insists upon is the ethical obligation to treat those texts of de Man in the light of the work he subsequently produced, and of his efforts, not only to put such thinking behind him, but to understand its historical antecedents and the source of its erstwhile potent appeal. Apparently there are plans to collect the early pieces in a volume with commentaries by Derrida and others, not all of them well-disposed toward de Man’s critical stance. So one may hope that the present round of opportunist polemics will give way to a more responsible discussion of the issues these articles raise.
The following books by and about Paul de Man are available in this country.
Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Methuen, 1983.
The Resistance to Theory, Manchester University Press, 1986.
Mémoires: For Paul de Man by Jacques Derrida, translated by Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler and Eduardo Cadava. Columbia University Press, 1886.
The Lesson of Paul de Man, edited by Peter Brooks, Shoshana Felman and J. Hillis Miller. Yale French Studies No 69, 1985.
Derrida's De l’Esprit: Heidegger et la Question is published by Galilée in Paris.
Hendrik de Man: Socialist Critic of Marxism by Peter Dodge was publsihed by Princeton University Press in 1979
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