Vol. 10 No. 10 · 19 May 1988

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Fateful Swerve

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.

Cynthia Chase
Cornell University, New York

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).

Geert Lernout
University of Antwerp


SIR: May an Asian be allowed to enter the acrimonious debate in your columns on whether he likes to be called a ‘black’? The answer for me, and I suspect for most Asians, is simple. My mother would be very upset if she learnt that I was ‘black’! As my children will tell you, when God was at his oven, he first got it slightly wrong and produced the ‘whites’. He then tried to compensate, overdid himself and produced the ‘blacks’. Finally, he got it just right and created the ‘browns’. My wife, who is under-baked, disagrees. My children and I are too polite to say she is just being a racist!

Deepak Lal
University College London

Oxford Shakespeare

SIR: May I correct Frank Kermode’s claim (LRB, 21 April) that the Oxford Shakespeare Textual Companion sets out ‘the material for argument against, as well as for’, its ‘various assumptions’? Take, for just one example, its crucial assumption of ‘memorial reconstructions’ by ‘actors who, like Bottom, attempted to play the parts of all the characters’ and thus created the earliest published texts of 2-3 Henry VI, Romeo, Richard III, Henry V, Merry Wives, Hamlet and Pericles. As the Oxford editors themselves concede, this is just a ‘hypothesis’ which ‘seems to us’ to be true. It had better be: otherwise, as the editors also concede, each such text can only represent an early Shakespeare play. If so, the Companion’s canon and chronology are hopelessly wrong, all because its editors cannot tell eight Shakespeare plays from eight botched corruptions. Its readers should therefore have been told about the dozens of dissenting specialists, and every single one of their detailed counter-arguments against ‘memorial reconstruction’, not one of which has ever been refuted. In fact, all but eight of those specialists, and every single one of their detailed counter-arguments, remain entirely unmentioned throughout the 671 pages of the Companion and the 1,432 pages of the Oxford Complete Works.

Eric Sams
Sanderstead, Surrey

SIR: Reviewing William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, Frank Kermode writes: ‘The notes … are keyed to the text of the Original Spelling edition, not the cheaper modernised version.’ In fact (and at the expense of hundreds of hours of hard labour), all notes that relate to both versions are keyed to both versions.

Stanley Wells
The Shakespeare Institute,


SIR: Regarding Gavin Ewart’s comments on a better name for light verse (Letters, 7 January), his answer might be neither to use the expression nor worry about it. Like most rag-bags, it has acquired a lot of loose threads; ‘witverse’ would fare no better. As he says, the expressions ‘comic verse’ and ‘humorous verse’ are limiting. But words are not much use unless they exclude what they do not mean. When we want to talk about satirical verse we can say so; similarly with parodies, travesties, epigrams, invectives, insults, and even funny rhymes. They all have their places. Bundling them together may increase their dignity, but only by adding to confusion. Politicians like to do this but writers could avoid it.

David Francis
London N2

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