Paul de Man was born in 1919 to a high-bourgeois Antwerp family, Flemish but sympathetic to French language and culture. He studied at the Free University of Brussels, where he wrote some pieces for student magazines. When the Germans occupied Belgium in 1940 he and his wife fled, but were turned back at the Spanish frontier and resumed life in Brussels. The Germans closed the Free University in 1941, so frustrating one possible career; but de Man’s uncle, the socialist politician Hendrik de Man, helped him to a job on Le Soir, the biggest newspaper in Belgium, which was then under German control. Hendrik de Man had supported the King’s decision to surrender, and for a time persuaded himself that the German takeover, though not quite the revolution he had looked forward to, was a revolution none the less, and might bring about what men of good will had wanted so desperately in the pre-war years – an end to decadent pseudo-democratic capitalism and a new era of socialism, even if it had to be national socialism.
Until November 1942, when his contributions abruptly ceased, Paul de Man wrote copiously for Le Soir. He later claimed that he left the paper as a protest against German control, though the paper was already under German control when he joined it – it was known as Le Soir volé, and its present management say it was ‘stolen and controlled by the occupier’. The signs are that at least in the early days de Man did not regard German control as a deterrent; of course the German bosses are quite likely to have turned much nastier in 1942, as they did about many matters. In addition to the hundreds of pages he wrote for Le Soir de Man wrote some reviews in Flemish for another German-controlled journal. He also did a lot of translating – including a Flemish version of Moby-Dick – which had no connection with war or politics.
After the war he was briefly associated – his opponents suggest feloniously – with an unsuccessful art publishing venture. In 1948 he went to America, where he worked in a New York bookshop and made useful contacts – for example, with Dwight Macdonald and Mary MacCarthy. Soon he was teaching at Bard College. Remarried – his opponents say bigamously – he went to Boston and taught at the Berlitz School. He registered for the PhD at Harvard, became a teaching assistant in Reuben Brower’s famous course, Humanities VI, and was recognised as a remarkable teacher, the kind that makes and keeps disciples. In spite of Brower’s advocacy he failed to get tenure; in 1960 he moved to Cornell, and thence to Zurich and Johns Hopkins. He ended his career at Yale, where, throughout the Seventies and early Eighties, he was the most celebrated member of the world’s most celebrated literature school. He died in 1984.
As academic curricula vitae go, de Man’s was certainly unusual, and an account of his publications might seem to make it more so, for his first book, Blindness and Insight, appeared only in 1971, when he was 51, and even then, it is said, he published only because Yale drew the line at bookless professors. There were to be only two more essay-collections before his death, but now we have two posthumous volumes, and there may be more to come. Considering the ever-increasing density and strangeness of his work, and its ever-increasing fame, it would take a very tough dean to say de Man had under-produced.
The corpus is now augmented by a volume he would not himself have wanted to see. This collection of his wartime writings looks like what it is, a heap of ephemera, ill-printed and hard to read in the photocopies. They testify to the exceptional industry and ability of the young literary journalist – he wrote a long succession of literary chronicles and reviewed large numbers of books in various languages – but it is unlikely that any degree of later eminence would have induced anybody to republish them had not their discovery caused such a tremendous bother. The editors, friends of de Man, decided, probably rightly, that in view of all that had been said and written about them on hearsay it would be as well to make them wholly accessible. The editors have not obtruded themselves; they neither justify nor condemn.And they seem to have been thorough. Here are 170 pieces from Le Soir, ten in Flemish from Het Vlaamsche Land – these with English translations – plus 100 brief notices written for a book-distributing agency in 1942-3, and a few earlier pieces from student magazines, one of which is here palpably misdated (4 January 1939 for 4 January 1940).
Keen to extenuate nothing, the editors also include a facsimile of page 10 of Le Soir for 4 March 1941, which is headed Les Juifs et Nous, and consists of one violently anti-semitic piece on Jews in general, and another claiming that French painting between 1912 and 1932 was enjuivé as a result of a plot by Jewish dealers, so that an influx of foreign blood had deflected French art from its natural course, making it morbid and corrupting both to painters and their public. A third essay condemns Freudianism as a further instance of Jewish decadence, and the fourth and last is de Man’s now notorious article on the Jews in modern literature. Dissociating himself from vulgar anti-semitism, for which he nevertheless holds the victims themselves partly responsible, he accepts the view that Jews had a lot to do with the disorders of Europe between the wars: but since national literatures evolve according to their own strict laws, they remained largely unaffected by the Semite invasion of other aspects of European life. There were no first-rate Jewish writers anyway; de Man lists some second-rate ones (he doesn’t include Proust) and concludes that if the Jewish problem were solved by the creation of a colony isolated from Europe the consequences for ‘us’ would not be deplorable. It must be added that the page on which this article was printed is decorated with boxes containing comments about Jews from such authors as Ludwig Lewisohn, Hilaire Belloc and Benjamin Franklin, who is said to have wanted Jews, described as ‘Asiatics’, excluded from the United States by the Constitution. This last citation is spurious.
Some commentators, including Geoffrey Hartman, say that by the standards of the time this was pretty lukewarm anti-semitism. Jacques Derrida – a Jew and a close friend of de Man’s – finds it inexcusable, but demands that it be dealt with justly. He repeats that the article deeply wounded him, but discovers in it some redeeming qualities: for example, ‘to condemn “vulgar anti-semitism”, especially if one makes no mention of the other kind [i.e. ‘distinguished anti-semitism’], is to condemn anti-semitism itself inasmuch as it is vulgar, always and essentially vulgar.’ Certainly these interrogations should be carried on justly, but this is all too manifestly a desperate plea. Others have suggested that this article is virtually a unique aberration in de Man’s contributions to Le Soir; yet others have conjectured that at this stage he was unlikely to have known much about what was already going on in ‘colonies’ within Europe – the Final Solution wasn’t ordained until January 1942. But as even the charitable Geoffrey Hartman feels obliged to remark, and as a reading of this collection makes obvious, neither of these excuses is plausible.
By now these wartime writings have been passionately scanned, especially by Jacques Derrida in the long article quoted above, which was published in Critical Inquiry last year.Here there is room for only a few observations. First, there is certainly more than one anti-semitic piece. An article in Flemish (20 August 1942) about contemporary German fiction deplores the way some Expressionist writers came into conflict with ‘the proper traditions of German art which had always before anything else clung to a deep spiritual sincerity. Small wonder, then, that it was mainly non-Germans, and specifically Jews, who went in this direction.’ Again, it is surely odd to find in a piece on Péguy (6 May 1941) a short, but not all that short, account of the Dreyfus affair which omits to mention that Dreyfus was a Jew; de Man is seemingly at a loss to understand why the straightforward case of an officer wrongly accused and reinstated by due course of law should have caused such a furor. He admires Péguy, a Dreyfusard, for quarrelling, at the cost of his job, with other liberal-socialist Dreyfusards. Christopher Norris, in a page devoted to this curious essay, remarks that ‘any mention of the Dreyfus affair must of course raise the question of anti-semitism,’ but fails to add that de Man’s mention of it rather pointedly did not; Derrida likewise omits to notice the omission in his Critical Inquiry piece, also preferring to emphasise that de Man was here writing admiringly of a Dreyfusard. In fact, the drift of de Man’s piece is best expressed in the words au fond, il ne s’agit pas de grand’chose.
Even if we recall that the affair lasted over a decade, that the opponents of Dreyfus forged and suppressed evidence, and that the victim spent a long time in prison, it might still be maintained that the level of anti-semitism over all these articles is fairly low. But to confine attention to specific references is misleading, for a survey of the whole collection makes it apparent that anti-semitism was at least not entirely inconsistent with de Man’s ideas about the national spirit and the need for cultural development to take place on national (and at any rate in some measure xenophobic) lines. Like his uncle, he was, it appears, ready to believe that the ‘revolution’ brought on by the événements of May 1940 had introduced a new and promising epoch of German hegemony in Europe. Flemish is a Germanic language, and it may have seemed opportune and possibly just, even for a writer of de Man’s French formation, to score off France, the dominance of whose language and culture was inveterately resented in Flemish Belgium. Yet there is an obvious difference between the French and the Jews. Given a spell of German discipline, the French might yet pull themselves together: but what hope was there for the Jews with their non-European, ‘foreign blood’? At the rather abstract level of discourse preferred by the young de Man, there was not much need to be as specific and insistent as some of his fellow contributors, either about Jews or about the flowering of the German spirit demonstrated in the conquests of 1940. Just as he refrains from further overt reflections on the Semite invasion, he silently declines to comment on the continuing progress of German arms, on the Italian alliance (though one article praises the successes of Italian nationalism), on the Russian campaign, the fighting in the Balkans and Africa, the entry of Japan and America into the war. Perhaps he regarded these matters as outside his cultural brief, though the fall of France had not quite been. Yet the military and political developments of 1941 and 1942 must have been of keen and at times disquieting interest to one who had taken the German victories of 1940 as final. For de Man had at first written, understandably, as if in 1940 the war was over, saying more than once that the difference between the two world wars was that the first was long and the second very brief, so that only in the first did people settle down to observable wartime behaviour. Since the Germans had won so completely, any future was going to be a German future, whether one liked the idea or not. But by the time he stopped writing for Le Soir the case was somewhat altered, with the Wehrmacht surrounded at Stalingrad, beaten in Egypt, and facing future battles in the west against forces enormously augmented since the American entry into the war. Meanwhile the Final Solution was well under way.
All these events, perhaps along with an increase of supervisory rigour in the office, may have been his inducement to leave Le Soir, but there seems to be no evidence for this except de Man’s own remark quoted above. And he is said to have offered on occasion rather unreliable versions of his wartime career – for instance, that he worked in England.
In student articles, written during the phoney war or drôle de guerre period, de Man argued that the war had been inevitable, and that after the annexation of Czechoslovakia it could no longer be maintained that Hitler merely wished to correct the injustices of Versailles. As an anti-imperialist, he said, one must choose the less objectionable of two imperialisms – namely, the British. But when the war was won we would have to deal with all the problems left over from the Thirties – unemployment, for example; and that would require a vast reform of European (and imperial) politics generally. May 1940 changed his mind, and a year or so later we find him claiming that the invaders, far from being the barbarians of propaganda and of leaders in the pre-Occupation student paper, are highly civilised. He rejoices at reports that the French are working alongside their victors in a solidarité purifiante. Soon he is recommending some German hand-outs explaining National Socialism, and observing that the Germans have made much more generous armistice terms than the French had allowed at the end of the first war.
He sometimes speaks of the irresistible force of a nation’s desire for unity, recommending Belgians to study the Italian example and commenting with severity on the record of the French. Ever since Richelieu they had striven to divide Germany. And they had made a bad mistake by refusing to collaborate when they might have done so on equal terms: for they must now choose between doing so on terms much less favourable, and passively submitting to England. He admires the traditional qualities of the French (expressed in the customary terms as clarity of intellect and expression), but rarely loses a chance to compare them unfavourably with the Germans. Under Hitler, he contends, there flourished a pure literature, very different from recent French writing. The Germans would give the French, at this decisive moment in the history of their civilisation, what they now most needed: order and discipline, and presumably purity also. However, in April 1942 he complains that the French do not appear to be responding satisfactorily to ‘the reforms at present in progress’.
Opinions of this sort surface from time to time in pieces of which the ostensible purpose is simply literary criticism, and the contention that in the mass these articles are just neutral accounts of books and concerts, leaving only one or two collaborationist obiter dicta to explain away, is simply absurd. Taken as literary criticism, they seem to offer few hints of the writer’s future interests, though in saying so I find myself slightly, and unwillingly, at odds with both Lindsay Waters and Jacques Derrida. Some of de Man’s judgments are routine – he thought very highly of Charles Morgan, for instance, as the French did in those days. He speaks well of Valéry, and that does remind us of the links between his later thought and his early interest in Symbolism. But his views on history, if he remembered them later, must have seemed embarrassingly undeManian. So with romanticism: an essay from the hand of the scholar of whom it is commonplace to maintain that he changed everybody’s attitude to that subject says that romanticism was pretty feeble in France, but strong in Germany because deep in the German national spirit, indeed la consécration définitive de la nature nationale (21-22 November 1942) – a version of literary history which he was later to condemn.
Unlike some commentators, both friendly and hostile, I see nothing very reprehensible about his failure to talk about this body of work (as distinct from parts of the work itself). Generally speaking, few writers, of whatever kind, and even if conceited enough to think anybody else would be interested, would volunteer to bring their juvenilia to judgment, even if they didn’t contain opinions later seen to be embarrassing or perverted. However, this writer’s subsequent fame – and the continuing row between deconstructive admirers and more conservative academics – ensured that people were interested, some hoping to use the wartime pieces to discredit de Man and the movement associated with him, the rest needing to defend themselves and their hero. So the significance of these juvenilia is strenuously debated.
Few would deny that at least some of the wartime writing is odious, that of a clever young man corrupted by ideas, and corrupted by war (for in wartime the intellect grows as sordid as the conflict), or merely opportunist, or a mixture of all these. To work for Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land was manifestly to forego any right of dissent. To appear on that anti-semitic page was, as almost everybody would agree, an act amounting to full collaboration. The repeated triumphing over the defeated French, having a possible origin in Belgian domestic conflicts, was presumably not done under direct external compulsion. And it is hard to find indications of concealed dissent in this collection, though some have tried to do so. The simplest explanations may be the least damaging in the end: the young man, on his return from attempted flight, found reasons for thinking it intellectually honest as well as expedient to collaborate with the victors. Others, especially in France, did likewise, until, their reasoning invalidated by events, they saw they must cease to do so; and it could be that de Man gave up his job for similar reasons. One wonders whether, had the Germans occupied Britain at the end of 1940, there would have been no clever young people willing to say in collaborationist newspapers (and wouldn’t there have been collaborationist newspapers?) that this was at least not altogether a bad thing.
Lindsay Waters’s long and interesting introduction to Critical Writings 1953-78 amounts to an apologetic intellectual biography of de Man. He dwells on the forces – the failures of democracy, the desire for national redemption, the longing for action – which induced intelligent people in the pre-war period to succumb to ‘the fascist temptation’. The comparison with Heidegger is here as elsewhere – and doubtless justly – used in de Man’s favour. But the main argument is that in his earliest work de Man embraced an ‘aesthetic ideology’ – its political manifestation is a rather mystical nationalism – of just the kind he was later to attack with such contemptuous subtlety. This implies that the youthful errors were intellectual rather than ethical, though Waters is in no doubt that anti-semitism, a rather more than merely cerebral blunder, was an essential constituent of German nationalism, and he has no way of excusing de Man’s endorsement of it. However, he finds in these ‘marginal texts’ the seeds of much later work: they display de Man’s abiding interest in ‘inwardness, interiority’, so ‘there is a fair degree of continuity.’
This connection seems rather tenuous, but Waters goes on to give a convincing account of the later career, from the early Sartrean phase through the decisive encounter at Harvard with American New Criticism, and the revisionary studies of romantic thought, to the decisive ‘turn’ to rhetoric and the concord with Derrida, which were the features of de Man’s last and most influential phase. His rather exotic academic career in America was a genuine European intellectual adventure, typical of what the writer himself, in a letter of 1955, called ‘the long and painful soul-searching of those who, like myself, come from the left and from the happy days of the Front Populaire’ – which, though it takes us back to a date before there is any substantial record, is plausible enough, as is the highly metaphysical mode of the soul-search.
In support of his argument for continuity, Waters also supplies what many disciples have been demanding: a selection of uncollected essays from the years before the publication of Blindness and Insight, with one uncollected late piece at the end. Many of these items are reviews, some long celebrated, like that of Michael Hamburger’s Hölderlin translations. Some – on Montaigne, Goethe and Mallarmé – were originally in French. All have that air of quiet, even tolerant authority which, despite occasional severities and bursts of ill temper, was of the essence of de Man’s personality. In an essay called ‘The Inward Generation’ he remarks of certain ‘near-great’ writers of the pre-war period – Malraux, Jünger, Pound and Hemingway – that they had all been ‘forcefully committed politically, but their convictions proved so frail that they ended up by writing off this part of their lives altogether, as a momentary aberration, a step towards finding themselves.’ The whole passage has concealed autobiographical interest. It attributes the course of such careers to the collapse of an aesthetic inherited from Symbolism, and used as a protection from real problems: but the war brought these into menacing actuality, and the political was now a matter of life and death. The political and aesthetic beliefs of such writers make them ‘vulnerable targets for today’s conservatism – more vulnerable, in fact, than they deserve to be, because their predicament was not an easy one’. Although he distances all this by talking about ‘the political and aesthetic beliefs of the Twenties’, it seems obvious enough that de Man here had himself in view: and in essence this is the best defence that could be offered. Reviewing books by Erich Heller and Ronald Gray, he remarks that both authors ‘too readily call “German” a general feature of the romantic and post-romantic intellect’, just as he had done himself.
The most intense of these speculations concern Mallarmé and Hölderlin, whose question wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit? seems to have haunted de Man: he quarrelled over it with the august interpretations of Heidegger. There is a measure of self-absorption about even the least of these pieces. They look forward as well as back, and one of their merits is that they often demonstrate how much can be said in a review or a relatively brief essay: which explains why de Man was so slow to publish a book, and why all his books are collections of essays.
It seems that Christopher Norris had almost finished his book on de Man when the young Belgian scholar Ortwin de Graef uncovered the articles in Le Soir, so he comments on them in a postscript. He finds that they contain ‘many passages that can be read as endorsing what amounts to a collaborationist line’. It would have been enough to say ‘many passages that endorse a collaborationist line’, but in general Norris is under no illusions. Before he knew about Le Soir he had already noticed National Socialist sympathies in the articles for Het Vlaamsche Land, and even in a pre-Occupation piece for the student newspaper. These pieces ‘uncritically endorse such mystified ideas as the organic relation between language, culture, and national destiny’ – ideas de Man would later ‘deconstruct with ... extreme sceptical rigour’. You can tell how shocked Norris is, for ‘mystified’, a favourite term of de Man himself, is his usual epithet for ideas he dislikes, and ‘rigour’ is what deconstructors ought always to use in the necessary business of ‘demystifying’ them.So he won’t excuse the wartime writings as ‘youthful aberrations’: but de Man is nevertheless a hero and somehow to be excused, if only by a ‘totalising’ account of his interior life, ‘totalising’ being a very mystified practice and tolerable only in these very unusual circumstances. Norris outlines the problems of Belgian national politics and the life and opinions of Hendrik de Man, by means of which the young man could, with fatal ease, have got hold of mystified ideas; and argues that the course of his subsequent intellectual travail can be in part explained by the disenchantment that followed their demystifying.
Others, less charitable, have declared that deconstruction is a means of destroying the value of any historical record, or at least blurring a past, as if de Man’s work were ‘nothing but a series of oblique strategies for pretending it never happened, or at least that there existed no present responsibility for past thoughts and actions’. This is Norris’s account of a view that he of course rejects. It has been expressed with much indignation by Stanley Corngold and others – the holocaust, and de Man’s own past, they say, conveniently vanish – but it is dismissed, in my view correctly, as founded on a false idea of the relation between deconstruction and history, admittedly a very dark topic. The alternative reading, vigorously expounded by Norris and more or less the same as that proposed by Waters, is that de Man’s later life was dedicated to the purging of the false ideology that had once possessed him – in short, an aesthetic ideology, related to an organicism equally responsible for romantic error and for German nationalism with its attendant evils. Looking with ‘principled scepticism’ at these youthful beliefs, de Man perceived that they must all fall together, as romantic fallacies he had now seen through.
Some may think it strange to regard Nazism and anti-semitism largely as intellectual errors, corrigible by the mere taking of further thought. And although defences of de Man are decently animated by affection for a dead and admired friend, these attempts at biographical exculpation, these rakings through his evolving, exacting, rather melancholy writings, often seem to lack any serious understanding of how even people of high intelligence are sometimes induced to behave, especially when they may be under stress of a kind the exculpators have the good fortune to know nothing about. De Man himself has some tortuous but interesting observations on excuses in an essay on Rousseau’s Confessions (in Allegories of Reading, 1979). For example, he distinguishes between confession and excuse. The former is ‘governed by a principle of referential verification’, whereas the latter lacks the possibility of verification – ‘its purpose is not to state but to convince’: thus it is performative whereas confession is constative. He is interested in the curious interaction, in Rousseau, of the two rhetorical modes, but at the same time he is willing to say that Rousseau was clearly dissatisfied with his performance as judge of himself, and unable to get rid by excuses of a recurrent sense of shame. For the childish theft of a ribbon is only a beginning: it is followed by other faults that likewise call for excuses, such as the abandoning of one’s children. (De Man, we are told by some of his accusers, abandoned his own wife and child, but I do not know whether the known facts really permit this inference.) The critic’s interest is expressly not in any simple way biographical or ethical: it is firmly expressed as devoted to an entirely rhetorical problem. It nevertheless passes belief that anybody could write an essay such as this without reflecting on his or her own life, and it may surely be assumed that de Man did so.
It is true that such considerations are not strictly germane to rhetorical theory. Norris quotes an admiring judgment of Minae Mizimura: ‘The shift from a concern with human errors to a concern with the problem inherent in language epitomises [de Man’s] ultimate choice of language over man,’ adding on his own account that it is here – ‘at the point of renouncing every tie between language and the will to make sense of language in acceptably human terms – that de Man leaves behind the existential pathos that persists in his early essays’. This apathetic purity is what his disciples admire and emulate, though the need to defend the master must sometimes hinder them from quite so scrupulous an avoidance of pathos: the enemy, after all, was representing him as a devious, opportunist, dishonest human being. Furthermore, even if one breathes the air of pure theory, it must sometimes seem strained to argue that it is always impossible to say what one means, even if the statement you wish to make is that it is always impossible to make such a statement; or to combine this belief with the belief that one can and should intend to say, and say, what will make sense of de Man’s life as a whole.
Norris is sometimes critical of his subject – for example, of the way in which his views on undecidability are given what sounds like inappropriately decisive and even authoritarian expression. This is his explanation: de Man’s style has ‘a rhythm that alternates between claims of an assertive, self-assured, even apodictic character, and moments of ironic reflection when those claims are called into doubt’. This is true: de Man almost always achieves this kind of internal tension, the undecidability of his own writing reflecting the unavoidable undecidability of language itself. He was always looking for the point where necessity encountered impossibility, or intention its fated undoing. He is the great impresario of the rhetorical impasse. The title of his first book, Blindness and Insight, reflects its thesis, that in critics the two must exist in inseparable tension. In the late essay ‘Resistance to Theory’, to be found in the book of the same title, he argues that ‘rhetorical readings’ are theory and not theory at the same time, the universal theory of the impossibility of theory. It would be easy to extend the list of such paradoxes: de Man’s quarrel with the aesthetic is the quarrel of an aesthete, his refusal to accept customary distinctions between literature and philosophy is philosophically-oriented, the denial of any differences between literature and non-literature is highly literary. Some such aporia – another favourite word – is the goal of deManian meditation, a kind of substitute for the obsolete satisfactions of closure, now known to be impossible because of the very nature of texts.
Norris, it must be said, is very clear about de Man’s positions. He hasn’t enough patience to give a fair hearing to anything that he can dismiss as mystified, but one hardly reads him with any hope of that. Within his own ballpark he is lucidly competent. He makes bold use of digressions. The point of a long one about Hillis Miller is to demonstrate that two colleagues, both deconstructionists, may have, within their sympathy, very different attitudes and styles. There is another on Adorno, registering with approval his view of the negativity of knowledge, in order to confer on de Man the increment of this particular virtue of Adorno. The object is to confute those who accuse de Man of nihilism; they are just as wrong as those who accuse him of quietism. The real problem is to discover in him anything, outside rhetoric, that can be stated unequivocally as a belief; and Norris’s book does help one to grasp the nature of that problem.
For a while, given the extraordinary veneration in which he was held, it must have been difficult for admirers to write about de Man without referring first to the man and his death, and then, for it emerged almost before the period of mourning was over, to the wartime writing. One impressive thing about Reading de Man Reading is that apart from the fine leading essay by Geoffrey Hartman, mentioned above, the contributors go about their rhetorical deManian business without such allusions. Hartman writes as a Jew, and as one who knows more than most about wartime anti-semitism. He admires the intellectual power of de Man’s late work: ‘the only peculiar thing is that a philosophical mind of this calibre should turn against the pretensions of philosophy and toward literature.’ And now he wonders about the purity of these deconstructive essays. ‘Hegel or Heidegger or Kant or Proust are not sources but materials only; there is neither piety in this critic for their achievement nor any interest in strengthening their hold on us, consecrating their place in the canon.’ He clearly thinks of de Man, the philosophical critic, as having made an extraordinary effort of self-dehumanisation, as if the kind of interest Hartman speaks of were somehow base or inauthentic. Nevertheless he speculates that there may be hidden, in the later essays, ‘the fragments of a great confession’, and that one might ‘link the intellectual strength of the later work to what is excluded by it, and which, in surging back, threatens to diminish its authority’. And when de Man asserts that ‘what stands under indictment is language itself and not somebody’s philosophical error,’ we are to understand that this is a reflection ‘by de Man on de Man’, for ‘the later self acknowledges an error, but does not attribute it to an earlier self – because that would perpetuate its blindness to the linguistic nature of the predicament.’ In short, the conscience of the rhetorician is such that it forbids the exercise of conscience in the person.
This gives one a fair notion of the complexity of the problem. Some of de Man’s admirers have properly assumed that their business is finally with his mature writings, with the power of his rhetorical procedures; and their ability to continue them is well illustrated in the remainder of this book. Among the most impressive are Neil Hertz’s essay on de Man’s essay on ‘Wordsworth and the Victorians’ (in The Rhetoric of Romanticism) – a deManian interrogation of de Man, like Carol Jacobs’s ‘Allegories of Reading Paul de Man’ (‘Allegories of Reading is an elaborate allegory of the impossibility of the fundamental condition of allegory’ which ‘necessarily relapses into the condition it deconstructs’). Like the master, these critics have become connoisseurs of the symmetry between the impossible and the necessary: as he himself pointed out, ‘the impossibility of reading should not be taken too lightly.’ Hillis Miller speaks of the ‘austere rigour that makes de Man’s essays sometimes sound as if they were written by some impersonal intelligence or by language itself, not by somebody to whom the laws of blindness and impossibility also apply, as they do to the rest of us’. On such matters it may, he feels, be best to keep silent, as he says de Man does.
But blindness and impossibilism, a love of the aporetic, seem, among initiates, to promote not silence but an endless linguistic fluency. This is in a way strange, for the prevalent deManian tone might be called depressed; every critical victory, to be recognised as a victory, must be a defeat. You may win the local skirmishes of deconstructive reading, but you have to lose the war. There must, it seems, be a peculiar pleasure in encountering language allegorised as something resembling the great Boyg, with no defence that can be used in that formidable encounter except language itself, now allegorised as a weapon treacherous and very easily broken. In a rare jocular moment de Man himself compared undecidability and aporia to getting stuck in a revolving door, which is perhaps a better figure. Anyway, a definition of reading which claims that hitherto it has never been attempted, and now that it has turns out to be impossible, might well have seemed dispiriting, but it turns out to be positively exhilarating. One might compare these writers to the early Christians, who thought they were the first people ever to read the Jewish Bible properly, were caught in the aporia of an end-time that could not end, and managed to feel pretty exalted about it.
Norris speaks of the essential inhumanity of de Man’s views on language, summarised in a neo-Nietzschean manner as ‘a wholly impersonal network of tropological drives, substitutions and displacements’. ‘To call de Man’s position counter-intuitive,’ he says, ‘is a massive understatement.’ Yet it is just this bleakness, this disclaimer of human authority over language, that attracts de Man’s luxuriously ascetic followers. They mourn the man but rejoice in his ‘inhuman’ teachings.
The theory that theory is self-defeating, that it cannot possibly control or comprehend the workings of figural language, is part of the master’s charm, but it is also a strange foundation for the ambitious institutional and political programmes now being quite stridently proposed by some – for instance, Jonathan Culler in his recent book Framing the Sign.Norris, no less committed but rather more critical, is less confident of the imperialist possibilities of theory, though he would like some sort of concordat with Marxism. De Man himself, with his ‘extreme and principled scepticism’, would possibly have thought this out of the question, as it must be if the inevitable terminus is that revolving door, where language moves in, impossibly, on an understanding of language, and is at once thrown out. The noble course is not to submit to the bewitchments of language, and to recoil from the Acrasian temptations of the aesthetic ‘ideology’. But people outside the cult are probably less principled and more prone to mystification. Trilling’s students, when he introduced them to the abyss of the Modern, gazed into it politely, said ‘how interesting!’ and passed by. Others may do the same to de Man’s abyss, and carry on thematising and totalising because it is their pleasure to do so, even if it is shamefully human to do so; and they have a long history of resistance to puritanical imperatives. As a rule they will do so without reference to the youthful errors of Paul de Man, and the insiders should now be happy to stop worrying about them and get on with their necessary and impossible projects.