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Letters

Vol. 10 No. 6 · 17 March 1988

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Fateful Swerve

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.

Wolfgang Holdheim
Cornell University, New York

We are indebted to Professor Holdheim for his interesting letter. More letters on this subject will appear in the next issue.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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.

A.J. Ayer
London W1

Toby Forward’s Diary

SIR: My response to the Vicar and Virago mayhem was a sense of outrage. Concerned that this visceral reaction might be a personal one, I spent a couple of days speaking to representatives of various Asian women’s groups in my borough, giving them Toby Forward’s essay (LRB, 4 February) to read. I also discussed the case with English people. Immediately the issues split along racial and political lines: host community and minority. The argument also fell into two groups. There were a few English men and women who empathised with me and were incensed about the deception but for many it was a storm in a tea cup. Their argument ran that the identity or provenance of a work of literature should not be a factor in its literary appraisal: a rose by any name; Doris Lessing’s Jane Somers’s Diaries and the uncertain authorship of Shakespeare’s works were mentioned. (An interesting sidelight is that two of the Booker Prize shortlisted novels, Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd and Circles of Deceit by Nina Bawden, were about artistic deception.) Others said it was simply a case of supply and demand, the brute force of the market; that Toby Forward, like all PR men, had astutely realised that the image of the product was frequently more marketable than the substance, and had manipulated the system under the defence of necessity. The more legally-minded said that a contract had been flouted.

Toby Forward tries to exonerate himself by saying that it was the system which was to blame. He had used various pseudonyms as catalysts to inspire his writing – ‘the pseudonyms were creative and dynamic’ – and presumably for a priest anonymity might have been judicious, though he doesn’t mention this as one of his reasons. He began to find that the Asian pseudonym aroused more interest than the others; he was encouraged by the BBC, his first outlet: ‘they wanted things with a genuine “ethnic" background because they didn’t get many.’ Instead of confessing his real identity he happily carried on under false pretences, receiving lengthy and kindly advice. The subterfuge had begun to gather momentum – he began to write for the different pseudonyms using different typewriters. ‘We had found a gap in the market and we set about filling it’: quite cold-blooded without worrying about the ethics of the thing. The ‘we’ being his doppelgänger, Rahila Khan. Toby Forward’s description of his collaboration with this created persona is bizarre and has echoes of Jekyll and Hyde (‘I said to Rahila that they’d like to meet us,’ ‘Rahila sulked,’ ‘Rahila was me … was the part of me that writes’).

Virago is a women’s publishing house. It has been an accoucheur to a variety of women’s writing from the classical and universally appealing to the unknown, the hesitant and those of a minority interest. I like to feel that there is positive discrimination in favour of voices that have been mute before now. For an Asian woman writer it is heartening to think that here is a publishing house that is not just giving the George Eliots of the world a chance to be heard, but which would like to consider writers who are not as sure of their medium or their audience. By the time Virago had received the ‘Rahila Khan’ manuscript Toby Forward had found himself inexorably caught up in his tangled web. Charmingly he confesses to having doubts but at the same time he makes no attempt to disabuse himself. To absolve himself he says: ‘Rahila disagreed and said we had to do everything by letter.’ (My four-year-old son has an imaginary friend and whenever he does something naughty he looks up at me and with complete conviction says: ‘I didn’t do it, Jack did it.’) Out of a mixture of cupidity and self-delusion he continues with his duplicity.

Speaking to Asian women – lawyers, university students; representatives of various Asian ‘action groups’ and ‘forums’ and ‘centres’: women from a variety of national, provincial and educational backgrounds, along the whole spectrum from purdah to permissiveness – I found that whether eloquent or inarticulate, they were unanimous in condemning the deception. Something sacred had been violated. ‘How can he know us?’ I replied that writers had created credible fictional characters of other races and sexes. Most women felt that he had no right to usurp a place that was theirs: ‘I don’t want to be demystified by an Englishman,’ said a lawyer. I pointed out that there weren’t many Asian women clamouring to be heard, but they said silence was better than deception since the ‘white community would read his work and consider it as diagnostic for the entire community.’ When they read about the interest and indeed indulgence that the BBC and the publishing houses had shown ‘Rahila Khan’ they felt it was wrong of Toby Forward to have exploited this special dispensation. Ultimately and very generously the consensus was that he should have written in his own name. ‘We would have felt happy that in multicultural Britain an Englishman can know us so well as to write about us with conviction.’ Writing in English presupposes a Western audience and for many the content was a cause for concern. One lady said it was probably the sensational nature of the work that had aroused ‘their’ interest. She was very critical of a recent book by an Indian woman living in Britain, In My Own Name by Sharangeet Shan, saying it had been published because ‘there is a lot about a vulnerable Asian woman being screwed by white men … otherwise it was boring and badly written.’

There have been very few women writers from the subcontinent who have written in English and been published in England: Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya, Nyantara Sahgal, Bapsi Sidhwa, Meira Chand, Atiya Hosain, Bharati Mukherjee. There have been even fewer writers on the experience of exile, the immigrant’s world, of deracination. (The best exponent of this theme has been a man: V.S. Naipaul.) Kamala Markandaya wrote Nowhere Man many years ago, Timeri Murari wrote The Marriage and Hanif Kureishi has recently been writing on this theme. I can only attempt to explain this virtual silence. It could be inertia, the ‘crippled mind’ that V.S. Naipaul speaks of. Indians are often stymied by what others will think of them, they also look to others to do things for them: passing the buck is endemic. The other reason is the absence of a convention of literature as an ironic mirror to life. Historically, Indian poetry and legend and lately films have often been escapist in nature. The impact of the West made writers consider ordinary lives as appropriate subject-matter for literature: early Indian novelists like Prem Chand, Mirza Ruswa and Manto wrote realistic prose in their native languages after they had been influenced by Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens. Writing in English came later: here one was offering one’s work for criticism by an English audience or a very small English-speaking élite. Interpreting one’s culture and translating it for another, with all the limitations of emphasis, allusion and vocabulary, can be extremely inhibiting. For women writers there is another constraint: the intimate circles within which lives are lived. Purdah or the concept of modesty is a deeply ingrained trait. A woman is the keeper of the family’s honour, she has to censor every word she writes. But there is a new generation of Asian women who would prefer publication and possible damnation to remaining mute and possibly misrepresented. The reply of these ‘Rahila Khans’ would be: ‘This is our pitch, Rev. Toby Forward: we are coming.’

Raffat Khan
London N10

Not strong on facts

SIR: Hilary Wainwright’s attack (Letters, 3 March) is truly amazing. I point out that she makes no mention of Scargill’s refusal to ballot his members on a strike: so she accuses me of either trying to bully her or rescue her. (Surely it would be better for her to plump either for bullying or for rescuing? Indecision between two such opposites rather diminishes the moral force of any accusation.) I disagree with her views, without ever mentioning her sex: she replies that I am a misogynist. I point out that Ken Livingstone nearly lost Brent for Labour: she replies that I am a poseur and speak with forked tongue. Finally, she accuses me of seeking to avoid public debate. Well, that’s what I thought we were having. Or trying to.

R.W. Johnson
Magdalen College, Oxford

Gentleman Jack from Halifax

SIR: Come on now – you don’t really think your readers are going to believe that, amazingly, and extraordinarily, 24 volumes of a madcap English lesbian out of the 19th century have just turned up, by Jove! in a West Yorkshire – what – abbey? cemetery? manorial attic? The author Helena Whitbread says modestly it has taken her two years to crack the code in which these diaries were written: ah, I think Ms Whitbread is cracking more than codes here. Is she from Lewes, near where Piltdown man was found?

Miz and Fizz Saral Waldorf
Vestal, New York

To the best of our knowledge, Gentleman Jack is a straight arrow. But we’re not too sure about Saral Waldorf’s name and address.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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