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Letters

Vol. 10 No. 13 · 7 July 1988

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Aids Panic

In a review of three American books, And the band played on, Crisis: Heterosexual Behaviour in the Age of Aids and The Forbidden Zone, Mr John Ryle (LRB, 19 May) begins: ‘There is no good news about Aids. With a total of 85,000 cases reported at the beginning of this year the World Health Organisation estimate of the true figure is nearer 150,000. Their global estimate for HIV infection is between five and ten million. Most HIV-positive individuals have no symptoms and don’t know they are infected: but the majority of them – possibly all of them – will eventually develop Aids and die; in the meantime, of course, they may infect anyone they have sex with and any children they bear.’ This is hogwash. The word ‘Aids’ is one of the cruellest and silliest neologisms of our time. ‘Aid’ means help, succour, comfort – yet with a hissing sibilant tacked onto the end it becomes a nightmare. It should never be used in front of patients. HIV (Human ImmunoDeficiency Virus) is a perfectly easy name to live with. ‘Aids’ causes panic and despair and has probably done something to facilitate the spread of the disease. In France, not even M. Le Pen could do much with le Sida. He had a go, but was made to look completely ridiculous. HIV is not some gay Götterdämmerung: it is another African virus, a very dangerous one, presenting the greatest challenge to medicine since tuberculosis, but one for which a cure will be found. Any virus, be it chicken-pox, mumps or HIV, will create a kind of mirror image of itself known as an ‘antibody’ which in time will stabilise the infected person. That should be the pattern. But HIV is a very slippery customer. There is no positive evidence of antibodies at work, only negative evidence that a great many infected people are alive. In one case in the US an infected person suddenly became HIV negative. We should, in fact, take Mr Ryle’s own figures. There have been 800,000 infected persons in the United States, of whom 80,000 have died. That means nine survivors to one death. This can mean only one thing: that some mechanism, pharmaceutical or otherwise, is keeping them alive.

One point cannot be emphasised too strongly. An infected person must never use anyone else’s toothbrush or an electric razor. We all have gingivitis from time to time.

What is most horrifying about Mr Ryle’s article is the callous cruelty with which he condemns hundreds of thousands of people to death. If a young man who has just been told that he is HIV positive got hold of the article, the chances are he might commit suicide. There have been many such cases.

Bruce Chatwin
Oxford Team for Research into Infectious Tropical

Fateful Swerve

Professor Cynthia Chase’s letter of 19 May regarding the Paul de Man affair is an indication of the vexed situation in which he left some of his brightest followers (Letters, 19 May). The level of Chase’s argumentation is, as is usual with her, extraordinarily high. But its points is surprising and perplexing. She criticises Christopher Norris’s sensible attempt to read de Man’s early literary criticism as de Man’s students from the Sixties did – as his way of re-thinking the roots of fascism. Chase seems to be making the claim that, on the contrary, Paul de Man never changed – that from first to last his was a consistent stance. Since she is so familiar with his work, both the earliest and the latest texts, we must credit her perceptions to some degree. Using the image of the ‘swerve’ (not the turn around or the turn away, but a deviation or detour in a largely similar direction), Chase appears to imply that there was always in de Man’s writing and thought a resistance to fascism. Her major resource for this argument is a very late text indeed, the talk on ‘Kant and Schiller’, currently available only as a somewhat flawed transcript. In that text – a sustained critique of the idea of aesthetic education and the humanities educational institutions it shaped – de Man traces a genealogy of fascism through aesthetic philosophy. He moves from Kant, who practises ‘pure’ philosophy, to Schiller, who misapplies Kant to empirical life, popularising and thus betraying ‘thought’, to Goebbels, who furthers the misreading in so catastrophic a manner. De Man’s implicit point is that philosophy and life should not be mixed. In a way, it could be said that what he is providing here is his post-mortem of the genesis and structure of fascism as a recurring tendency to fall from ‘thought’ into ‘empirical life’. He specifies this in linguistic terms as a transition from cognitive tropology (philosophy) to performative utterance (act). This is indeed a stance that remains consistent throughout his American career. In the long run, however, an after-the-fact analysis is the only thing de Man’s theory and methods could do with, to or against fascism, which is explicable in his system as a rather natural human tendency to fall from ascetic (philosophical) heights. When it comes to fascism, autopsy is the limit of his analytic power.

The great failing of Paul de Man is not to be linked to the many moral failings (ranging from gullibility to deception and opportunism) objected against his character by his critics, both before and after the disclosures. It is his chosen failing, his decision to keep social life unthought. In a letter to a friend (3 January 1939) he responds to the complaint that he does not attend enough to his fellow man by denying the charge: he is indeed interested in them, he writes, but only on condition that he remain perfectly detached from them. In the ‘Kant and Schiller’ piece he repeats this gesture, even dismissing Kant’s references to the interpersonal as figurative ploys for presenting what really counts, his thought. By refusing absolutely to think the inter subjective relation, to make the ‘form of the social tie’, as Lacan called it, a matter for serious attention, study and critique, he apparently wants to keep thought pure and separated from any distorted acts that might be performed (in ‘real life’) on its basis.

His work on Rousseau fits into this programme. Rousseau was among the first to try to think the inter-personal relation under the new social contract of modernity; de Man’s interpretation of his writing is no less than its sustained and patient recuperation from social action (the French Revolution), from the sciences of man (Lévi-Strauss), for ‘thought’ (tropology). Why do I call this a failing? Ultimately, it keeps social life, social acts, safe from critical thought, relegated to the unconscious. Such a radical subjectivism, resulting in a principled, laissez-faire relation to others, is almost Jansenist in character.

At a conference on ‘Institutes and Institutions’ held this April at Irvine, Professor Jonathan Culler (Chase’s spouse, who has also written in these pages on this topic) offered a paper which called for ‘elimination of the social sciences’ from the University. At the same conference Professor Jacques Derrida explained that his own work is an effort to offset the gains made by modern social science on territory traditionally held by philosophy. Presumably Derrida’s references were to those social analysts on whom he himself has written: Lévi-Strauss (anthropology), Lacan (psychoanalysis), Jakobson (semiotic linguistics), as well as members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research. The re-conquest for ‘thought’ of ground gained by the ‘sciences of man’ would, if one were to credit de Man’s thesis, be a means of resisting ‘fascism’ – even though each of the social scientists I have just mentioned has a somewhat better personal track record in this respect than de Man. Whom are we to believe?

Juliet Flower MacCannell
Director of the Focused Research Program for Gender and Women’s Studies, University of California, Irvine

Cynthia Chase (Letters, 19 May) takes issue with my reading of Paul de Man’s work on account of its ‘reductive’ biographical approach and its failure to comply with his own repeated counsel against such naive misconceptions. Perhaps you would allow me to address her arguments and, by implication, some of the points raised in other letters that you have published during the past few months. There are three possible lines of response to the discovery of these wartime writings. The first – as argued by hostile commentators like Frank Lentricchia – would take the worst possible view of their content, and would hold furthermore that everything de Man went on to write must (so to speak) carry guilt by association, and therefore be deeply suspect on ideological grounds. The second would maintain, on the contrary, that de Man’s later texts have absolutely nothing in common with his early writings, that in fact they exhibit an extreme resistance to that form of dangerously mystified thinking, and should therefore be treated as belonging to a different order of discourse. The third – and this is basically my own understanding – is that de Man’s later work grew out of an agonised reflection on his wartime experience, and can best be read as a protracted attempt to make amends (albeit indirectly) in the form of an ideological auto-critique.

In the introduction to his book Frege: Philosophy of Language Michael Dummett recalls having experienced something like the shock of belated discovery that has attended these recent revelations about de Man. Dummett had devoted many years to his study of Frege, thinking him the greatest of modern logicians and philosophers of language. At one point he decided to set aside this project temporarily and devote himself to the work of improving and combating the effects of National Front propaganda. Subsequently he discovered that Frege had himself held views of an extreme right-wing character, that he had expressed overtly racist sentiments, and indeed gone along with that whole pernicious line of half-baked populist rhetoric that Dummett now confronted. But in the end this discovery made no real difference to his estimate of Frege’s contribution in the fields of logic and linguistic philosophy. That work belongs to such a specialised domain – so remote from Frege’s individual psycho-pathology, or the content of his social and political beliefs – that Dummett was able to continue his project with a good conscience. After all, it is among the main axioms of Fregean philosophy that truth-values exist independently of thoughts going on in this or that mind, and that language in its logical or truth-conditional aspect has nothing to do with matters of subjective or individual belief. So clearly there is a case for arguing, like Dummett, that one has to draw a firm, categorical line between Frege’s logico-linguistic innovations and his repugnant political views.

Now I don’t think that this is a real option in de Man’s case, despite the fact that so much of his later work is conducted in a style of austere, impersonal rigour that might seem to approximate ‘pure’ philosophy of language. One could recall, in this connection, the passage from his essay on Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’ where de Man writes that ‘it is not a priori certain at all that the mode of meaning, the way in which I mean, is intentional in any way’: it ‘is dependent on linguistic properties that are not only not made by me, because I depend on the language as it exists for the devices which I will be using, it is as such not made by us as historical beings, it is perhaps not even made by humans at all.’ We cannot any longer read such passages as they ask to be read: that is to say, as referring purely to those questions in the province of language, translation, rhetoric and the other topics that preoccupied de Man in his last years. From one point of view – that taken by the hostile commentators – they reveal the quite extraordinary lengths to which he went in order to repress, disguise or evade the memory of those early journalistic writings. From another, they are the end-point of a long and painful coming-to-terms with the fact of that guilt and the way that what is written possesses a starkly material force that can always return to haunt the writer. As Geoffrey Hartman has pointed out, there is something more than a circumstantial irony in the fact that de Man is here writing about Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish critic who was driven to suicide while attempting to escape from the Nazi forces of occupation. But we shouldn’t, for that reason, be tempted to conclude that the later work is nothing more than a species of obscure private atonement; that its claims to offer a rigorous reflection on the powers and the limits of language are simply a last-ditch strategy of evasion.

There can be no doubt that de Man had reasons – urgently personal reasons – for wanting to convince himself that language and history were utterly beyond the control or understanding of the situated individual subject. In this sense, the whole of his later production could be read (as critics like Lentricchia read it) as one long attempt to disown responsibility for what he had once written. But this is to take those later pronouncements very much at face value, as if de Man had really succeeded in repressing all trace of such memories. It is worth bearing in mind some remarks of Mizae Mizumura, herself hard put to account for the curious co-existence in de Man’s work of an intense desire to renounce the pathos of subjective guilt and loss with an equally compulsive need to return to such themes and endlessly rehearse them in his writing. ‘The impression of deprivation comes closer, nonetheless, to grasping the quintessence of de Man than a placid acceptance of the extreme ascesis that reigns in his work … The one who has not been tempted would not have spoken so often about the necessity (and the impossibility) of renunciation – and would not have done so with such authority.’ Mizumura was writing before the existence of those articles for Le Soir became public knowledge. But her comments take on an additional force when read – as one inevitably reads them now – in the context of de Man’s wartime writings and his lifelong attempt to atone for past errors. The point is not just that his entire subsequent production must henceforth be seen as a species of cryptic autobiography, a confessional record that merely masquerades as textual exegesis, philosophy of language, or Ideologiekritik. Rather, it is the fact that de Man’s own experience had left so deep and lasting an impression on his work that one simply cannot separate (in T.S. Eliot’s phrase) the ‘man who suffers’ from ‘the mind that creates’, or the strain of anguished self-reckoning from the desire to put these lessons to work in a rigorously critical way. It is wrong to suppose that these readings are wholly incompatible, or that somehow the presence of these sombre meditations counts against our accepting the validity and force of his arguments.

Christopher Norris
University of Wales, Cardiff

Double Brains

The connection between A. Harrington’s Medicine, Mind and the Double Brain, on the one hand, and Elster’s The Multiple Self and M. Warnock’s Memory, on the other, is so patently a matter of title only that to combine them in a single review and, worse, to enlist a ‘lecturer in physical chemistry’ to assess them is either editorial incompetence or prejudice (LRB, 19 May). In a four-column review, predictably, Elster and Warnock combined get half a column for their pains. And, predictably, Warnock’s resort to ‘poets, philosophers, novelists and other writers’ is ‘whimsical’ (Atkins equates the vacuities of religion with Wordsworth and Proust), when, one supposes, Warnock could and should have excerpted physical chemists, neurophysiologists and molecular biologists. Such worthies do not traffick in Proustian/Wordsworthian moonshine but deal, presumably, with ‘the real thing’. They are the ones to give us ‘sharp answers’, ‘science’ v. ‘literary butterfly-collecting’ (so much for Nabokov). Atkins ridicules Warnock’s obvious distinction between computer memory – efficient in retrieval but unconscious – and conscious, reflective (‘Proustian’) sense memory. He calls this inescapable distinction (inescapable to all but the most whimsical AIists) ‘wishful thinking’. He concludes with his version of the trinity – ‘computer science’, ‘artificial intelligence’ and the ‘neuro-sciences’. ‘What we get is Wordsworth,’ he laments, ‘instead of Turing.’ (What, in AI’s name, does Turing have to tell us about the subjective experience of memory, or the complexities of personal identity?) My advice to Warnock and Elster is, instead of closing in on the offices of the London Review with guns blazing, to picnic on the grass and think of picnics past, enjoyed by ancestral selves.

Lawrence Shaffer
New York

Missing Person

I don’t think I have previously seen a reviewer admit to a mistaken criticism, accept that the facts are the opposite of what he has alleged and then apply to them an enhanced version of his original slight (Letters, 2 June). George Steiner’s interesting failure to notice Orwell among the writers listed by Margot Heinemann as having fought in Spain makes his references to party discipline and Stalinist habits – to use his own epithet – rather poignant. Margot Heinemann is a writer who more than most on the left has stood out against the habit of thinking to order, a quality which George Steiner might perhaps have recognised in the essay he criticises. The message, I take it, is that Orwell has been declared an unperson by what Steiner regards as the Stalinist Left. In 1984 Lawrence and Wishart, whom he would presumably locate in that region, published a volume of essays, Orwell: Inside the Myth, which look at Orwell seriously and critically. The essays undoubtedly part company with the reverential school of Orwell criticism, but they give no support to the weary suggestion that Orwell is being written out of history by those on the left who disagree with him. Steiner’s sarcastic apology is a useful reminder that old ways of thought nevertheless die hard.

Stephen Sedley
London NW5

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