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Slow DeconstructionDavid Bromwich
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Vol. 15 No. 19 · 7 October 1993

Slow Deconstruction

David Bromwich

3879 words
Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminars and Other Papers 
by Paul de Man, edited by E.S. Burt, Kevin Newmark and Andrzej Warminski.
Johns Hopkins, 212 pp., £21.50, March 1993, 0 8018 4461 4
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Serenity in Crisis: A Preface to Paul de Man 1939-1960 
by Ortwin de Graef.
Nebraska, 240 pp., £29.95, January 1993, 0 8032 1694 7
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The guru differs from the sage in point of approachability. To experience the sage, you must have read his work; the meeting may come later, and may disappoint. With the guru, personal contact matters most and the first encounter must succeed; the writing need only offer a clue to the presence. Paul de Man said enough memorable things to be quoted like scripture by the susceptible, and one of the things he said was about quotation: Citer, c’est penser. It is fair to conclude that in his last years he was a guru. The effects can be felt in his writing. But he kept talking to those outside the inner circle, as many in such a position do not; and his long career of teaching (at Harvard, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Yale) has a satisfying continuity. If his deepest admirers included a few more who did not know him in the classroom, he might qualify as a hermetic late instance of the Continental sage.

What was his wisdom? He was interested in knowledge, self-knowledge above all. He believed that most pretenders to knowledge were ‘deluded’, and was convinced that literature must be unique in the knowledge it afforded, or else in giving a master-clue to the delusion of every sort of knowledge including its own. A stance like his might plausibly lead away from the study of literature, into politics for example, or the study of philosophy or psychology. Yet he appears by temperament to have been peculiarly suited to the study of texts – a word he did much to bring into vogue in literature departments. The most marked traits of his writing are dialectical ingenuity and finish, a stoical indifference to matters of personality and a mandarin arrogance of opinion. His thinking, however, in the Sixties and early Seventies, was notable for certain idealisms: the hope that out of the self-doubt that writing performs a spiritual discipline might emerge; and the belief that the truest source of the discipline could be found in Romantic autobiography, where the hero is composed of several earlier selves and the reader comes to know the distance between all experience and all writing.

Deconstruction was the acid bath that burned away the idealisms. ‘Fast’ deconstruction had long been the extracurricular resort of clever or bored philosophers; as in William James’s Hegelian revelation under the effects of laughing gas: ‘What’s mistake but a kind of take?’ De Man had broached the idea in his first book. Blindness and Insight (1971). In Allegories of Reading (1979), the only other book he lived to publish, he made a more systematic claim: ‘A literary text simultaneously asserts and denies the authority of its own rhetorical mode.’ If I assure you that we can examine the truth of the matter ‘in the light of common day’, you may recall that the phrase comes from a poem by Wordsworth, where common day is a metaphor for death, and so in trying to say that we live by truth I have told you that we die by truth. Most people would probably conclude that we can sort out the complications as they come, but de Man replied: there is no escape from the grip of metaphor. Every literary text makes a claim both of empirical control and of imaginative distortion; but its hope of meaning neither too little nor too much is defeated from the start. Up to a point, this may feel like sceptical good sense. To get the queer flavour of de Man you must see how it feels when made to consist with an utter denial of personal agency. It is not we who use language, it is language that uses us.

The view has curious implications for speech-acts like promises and apologies. If I tell you, as Rousseau told the reader of his Confessions, how piercing my remorse is at a particular act of theft or lying, the result may be to make you excuse me more conscientiously and admire me more insinuatingly than you could have done without the report. And that was the reverse of my hope in telling the story. Or was it? Intention is beside the point for de Man; the uncertainty he stresses has the character of an impersonal law. Writing, once it comes into relation with life, makes it ‘possible to face up to any experience (to excuse any guilt), because the experience always exists simultaneously as fictional discourse and as empirical event and it is never possible to decide which one of the two possibilities is the right one.’ His early emphasis on consciousness and knowledge had fostered an appreciation of the writer for the sake of the writing. The later emphasis on ‘suspicion’ and ‘texts’ holds on to the writing alone, for the sake of its obedience to a pattern. In seeing the same experiment repeated from author to author, the critic aims to be satisfied the way a scientist is satisfied.

Ortwin de Graef is the Belgian scholar who discovered the collaborationist articles that Paul de Man wrote for Le Soir in Brussels between 1940 and 1942. De Graef remains a warm admirer; and in Serenity in Crisis, science comes into his story of how the young de Man absorbed the Fascist programme into his search for truth. He had shown an early interest in the natural and social sciences, as well as literature. The obvious ambition would have been to combine the ‘discourse’ of all three disciplines, and to that global project other global ambitions may then have attached themselves. Around 1940, thinks de Graef, everyone must have been disturbed, as he believes de Man was, by ‘the absence of a scientific legitimation for the refusal to collaborate’. That stretches a point unless we suppose there was a scientific legitimation for the positive decision to collaborate. But de Graef’s whole sense of the period is dulled by an apologetic intent and by the dubious wit that stares out in his punning coinage of the word ‘collaboratory’. He cites with approval the judgment of Werner Hamacher that de Man’s collaboration ‘was not founded on pro-Nazi sympathies, but rather on a realism to which force appears as an authority that produces facts and justice.’ In fact, such ‘realism’ was compatible with pro-Nazi politics, and was a usual motive for conversion among intellectuals.

De Graef will not let go: ‘what is of vital importance is that we realise, no matter how vaguely, to what extent our position is not a priori comfortably different from that of de Man as a collaborator. Only on this condition can we pretend to think what must separate us from this position.’ He means that our choices, too, are arbitrary, but finds a way of saying so which implies that we, too, are guilty. De Graef takes this line because he is trapped by the assumption of the later de Man that the very idea of a moral choice is unintelligible. Many things may separate us from that position. People do make choices, even people in books do. Some choices are humanly admirable, some are less so, and in using the power to praise or blame not all readers will consent to the prohibitions laid down by de Man in Allegories of Reading and elsewhere.

Serenity in Crisis shows, with one remarkable quotation, that he was in the trap already by 1942. The passage, as de Graef observes, may have come from a reading of Montaigne, but it passes into a different register:

We are forever condemned to live in the arbitrary; all attempts at organisation are useless, since we cannot logically justify them anyway. Man has succeeded in using, understanding, and even, to a certain extent, dominating the forces of nature – but he does not have the strength to order his own life.

This is the existentialist note, except for the final flatness of the pessimism, and de Man gave that up in later years, when his most cutting dismissal of a writer’s work was to say that it was in ‘bad faith’.

The last chapters give much testimony on the influence of Heidegger – a debt that was plainly acknowledged, and formative for de Man’s thinking about Hölderlin. He was not drawn to ‘dwelling’ or Being or any other marker of serenity apart from ‘crisis’; he argued in a series of essays that the attraction of such gestures for Hölderlin had been greatly exaggerated by Heidegger. Unity with Being might, however, be the name for an impulse that first showed its power in Romantic poetry: the trick of thought by which the mind – dominating nature, but unable to order its own life – consoles itself with the idea of becoming like nature. ‘It is in the essence of language to be capable of origination, but of never achieving the absolute identity with itself that exists in the natural object.’ The drift of the argument here, in the ‘Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image,’ comes from Schiller’s On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, and de Graef notices, as other readers have in other contexts, the poor technical quality of de Man’s illustrations from Wordsworth and’ Rousseau. He was not so careful a scholar as to find the time to correct a passing reference to Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy Gray poems’.

The point of this essay of 1960 was not what it showed but what it might lead to: an account of the kind of self-consciousness that emerges from the many ‘constitutive’ attempts of a mind to represent itself. That account came nine years later, in his most original essay, ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’. Both words of the title matter. We gain such knowledge of time as we have by means of rhetoric; and it may be that every figure of speech is tied to a need to justify a mental leap over time. The ‘symbol’ in Romantic criticism was an effort to get outside time into nature; but symbol, or correspondence, will always be found to fall back on allegory: the unity hoped for turns out to refer to an earlier time or a different life.

Time in de Man’s usage means mental or phenomenal time, and History, so far from pointing to external events or circumstances, can only mean a collective temporal predicament, to the extent that such a condition can be known. He had no interest, and to his credit pretended to no interest, in the accidental siftings of things-that-happen-to-people. From this prejudice followed his dismissal of all of 19th-century realism as a deluded aberration of history. Literary history, a discipline that grew up alongside realism, he mentions in tones that rise occasionally from scorn to muffled scorn; but the favourite, almost the only adjective in all these references, is ‘naive’. Allegories of Reading thus opens with a grand gesture of false humility, an inside joke for the elect: ‘I began to read Rousseau seriously in preparation for a historical reflection on Romanticism and found myself unable to progress beyond local difficulties of interpretation.’ De Graef gives a faithful echo: ‘I initially set out on a preliminary synopsis of de Man’s writing ... but I soon found myself unable to progress beyond local difficulties of interpretation.’ The question persists, whether one has in mind biography or historical narrative in the usual sense: how much history can be extricated from such ‘local difficulties’?

It had better be a lot, since a lot is looked for now. Those who long held de Man’s criticism in special esteem are in the position of having to offer him as a political or historical critic of some sort, because, just at the moment, that is the way to make a critic presentable. Here lies the interest of Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism – a collection that brings together his Gauss Seminars on Romanticism, delivered at Princeton in 1967, with some early essays and two short theoretical pieces from the early Eighties. If he ever made a bid to define history in relation to lived experience, these seminars, the germ of ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’ and much else in his later work, would surely be the place to look. Failing that, some hints ought to turn up in the position papers of the Eighties, delivered when the new line of historical scholarship was well under way. But, in all these pieces, de Man speaks only of ‘the actual business of reading’; rather unfashionably, he claims descent from the New Criticism: ‘for me it has always been a filiation I have no difficulty construing as a compliment rather than a denunciation.’

The seminars deal with three of the authors he cared for most, Rousseau, Hölderlin and Wordsworth, and a fourth he cared for less, a deluded case, the failure Baudelaire, whose lapses into idealism are treated as instructive because symptomatic. The claim for the Romantic writers is that they saw a truth about language which their successors evaded. They asked why a ‘literary self’ seems to ‘originate with a foreknowledge of its own destiny that no empirical self can ever possess’. Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Baudelaire are said to have lost the understanding of that ‘seems’. They believed that an origin may be innocent, or that an end may be transcendent. In certain moods, they believed that art could add something to life. What is at stake here?

Place the time of writing alongside the time of experience and you will be made aware of a difference, and will be led to reflect on the incommensurability of any life and any story about a life. De Man refuses to say that the contrast favours either the truth of experience or the truth of writing. Rather it favours doubt, doubt all along the way, the knowledge of blind repetition, and the idea of a self that cannot be either an integral subject or an object of knowledge. It is always a sign of anxiety, he says, when a novel or poem affects a concluding wisdom that transcends its beginnings. In the greatest literature, everything, especially the defeat of hope, is present from the start.

Wordsworth and Rousseau were deeply involved with the political experiences of their times, in particular the aspirations of constitutional and republican government. By contrast, de Man simply asserts that ‘the bond between men is not one of common enterprise.’ Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism is packed with broad allusions to history; but when a definition is needed it comes like this: ‘History, like childhood, is what allows recollection to originate in a truly temporal perspective, not as a memory of a unity that never existed, but as the awareness, the remembrance of a precarious condition of falling that has never ceased to prevail.’ The last clause makes a fair summary of everything he meant by ‘temporality,’ but to call what ‘allows’ it history is one more instance of an annoying habit.

He is often deliberately mystifying in his use of academic terms-of-art which have a precise sense in a different argument from the one to which he recruits them. Material, applied to sounds in poetry, and metalanguage, applied to conscious perspectivism in poetry, are further instances of the same procedure. The abuses are sparse in the seminars of 1967. They have grown imposing by the early Eighties and one reason must have been his swelling reputation as a philosopher to literary theorists. He was involved twice, to revealing effect, in controversies over his interpretations of philosophers – with Stanley Corngold on Nietzsche’s conception of error, and with Raymond Geuss on Hegel’s understanding of art. De Man had translated Nietzsche’s remark that the world is a place where a mistake can happen and made it say instead that the world is a realm where ‘error reigns’. He had taken Hegel’s sentiment that art is for us a thing of the past, a description of one phase of civilization, and made it apply to all art at all tunes. In both disputes, he managed to concede every pertinent detail and yet to imply it could not possibly affect the truth he was getting at.

The all-or-nothing propensity, the sliding argument that transfers a point about the relations of reading to the column describing relations of power, the compulsion to drive any paradox to an extreme where it breaks down the possibility of opposition: these habits too can be spotted early. Having written a note to himself, saying that in fiction as advanced as Proust’s ‘la conclusion est encore bien moins que l’origine, qui n’est rien,’ he has to up the ante and add: ‘La fin est moins que rien.’ One must have read a novel a great many times before this even begins to be true, and it is doubtful that anyone who once finished writing a novel supposed that the conclusion was less than nothing. A longer and more public example occurs in the first seminar. De Man is talking about the difficulty of fixing an observation, as in an anthropological report, where ‘every change of the observed subject requires a subsequent change in the observer’; as the ‘oscillation’, he continues,

gains in intensity and in truth, it becomes increasingly less clear who is in fact doing the observing and who is being observed. Both parties tend to fuse into a single subject as the original distance between them disappears. The gravity of this development will at once be clear if I allow myself to shift, for a brief moment, from the anthropological to the psychoanalytical or political model. In the case of a genuine analysis of the psyche, it means that it would no longer be clear who is analysing and who is being analysed; consequently the highly embarrassing question arises who should be paying whom. And on a political level, the equally distressing question as to who should be exploiting whom is bound to arise.

The last two sentences are a wild non sequitur; the ‘should’s give away the illicitness of the transition. The lecturer plainly felt no strain in passing from a routine point about descriptive adequacy to a discussion of ethical imperatives; but morality stands or falls with epistemology, as this argument requires it to do, only if we suppose there is no such thing as a moral convention.

De Man in these seminars is the European learned authority bringing to ‘the rather sedate world of American and English criticism’ the advanced doctrine of the age. It is a role that others have played since, but no one half so well. Hence the bracing tokens of solidarity and welcome: ‘I hope we can all call ourselves Geneva critics.’ Hence too, the very dry accolades given to the few contemporaries who may be worth borrowing from: René Girard, for instance, whose ‘thought degrades and bypasses the constitutive power of time’. By 1981, in his defence of theory against some strictures by Frank Kermode, though he might feign a prophetic tremor at the thought of a coming wave of repression, the climate had actually shifted so far in de Man’s favour that many in the audience would have been reading the writers he read, and would be equipped to see what was wrong with his summoning of Kierkegaard, Marx, Hegel and Friedrich Schlegel as witnesses for the defence, solid libertarians opposed to every kind of censorship. ‘All the names I have mentioned are exemplary in never giving in to this urge. The only discourse any of them would have suspected of being totalitarian is their own.’ False: one thinks of the Hegel of the Philosophy of Right, the Marx of the Critique of the Gotha Programme, the Nietzsche of Ecce Homo and The Will to Power.

Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism is the latest and probably the last of several posthumous volumes of de Man’s; touching as it does his central concerns, it makes inevitable some assessment of the impact of his work. There is a whole class of aesthetic perceptions that now feel as if they bear his signature. When one reads the final sigh of Roussean’s Galathée to Pygmalion – Encore moi – with its ‘mood of ironic renunciation that characterises ... the reflective project of the artist’, the moment seems quite as typical of de Man as of Rousseau. He brought to light and established the worth of one kind of attention. It is a major quality in a critic. With it, at least in his dealings with English poetry, went an odd deficiency of verbal tact; and in reading him one is apt to respond to the drive toward persuasion rather than the exact propriety of any detail. He can quote Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘Mutability’ and praise its attainment of the right degree of epistemological doubt, without noticing that until the last few lines (‘Some casual shout that broke the silent air’) the writing is as hackneyed as any specimen of the poet’s duty-ridden later manner.

In person, de Man seems to have been admired most for conveying the possibility that one could live on very little – without human hopes or fears, or always informed that behind those passions was a trope, a reflex of language, a shadow of intent in a world where nothing casts a shadow. The mood is never formulated directly; but de Graef quotes a passage from an essay of 1955 which implies it with rare eloquence:

The security of Rilke’s melancholy dreams, the security of our ancestors in their houses and vestments – was this real or is it merely a product of our imagination? And the appeasement we feel ourselves in thinking that they possessed this serenity – a thought that satisfies the spirit and lulls it to sleep at the same time – can we rely on this? Perhaps in the degree to which it is impoverishment and burns history without leaving material residue, technology forces us to rid ourselves of what is only a false serenity.

The hypothesis that technology may leave no ‘material residue’ shows the length of sober absurdity to which his speculative intelligence could press. Though the sentiment is not Heideggerian, it shares much of Heidegger’s fondness for the clean sweep, the change that is seen to descend everywhere at once. Those accustomed to live on very little are as liable as any to swing over to this opposite.

Other critics have worked from an awareness like Paul de Man’s that consciousness poses an endless hindrance to its own strivings for clarity; in his generation, he was the one who sent out the message with conviction and force. But it is not a natural next step, it is a peculiar, perverse, and in his writing an unexplained step to want to say that experience itself is an alien abstraction, that no person has ever performed an act that helped to order a single life. People have done such things, and if it is said that the belief that preceded and followed the action was deluded, one can reply that people live by illusions as much as they do by loyalties. Nothing is more arbitrary than these commitments, and nothing is more real. The wish to devise a therapy against them carries no moral for literature. It is fated to be understood as an unrepeatable ambition, engendered by the abilities, betrayals and defences of one life.

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Vol. 15 No. 21 · 4 November 1993

David Bromwich’s piece on Paul de Man (LRB, 7 October) was the best ever written on the subject, but Bromwich omitted one of the crucial factors in the rise of de Man’s reputation. Much of the academic worship of de Man resulted from the fact that he was, in the most precise sense of the word, a mind-fucker.

I knew many of his victims among the female graduate students at Yale. De Man seduced their psyches with a tenacity more rapacious than any his less imaginative colleagues used in trying to possess their bodies. When he told the women in his seminar they would not make the ‘bourgeois errors’ about literature that were made in every other seminar, he thrilled them with the promise of escape from their conventional families. When they felt terrified by their ignorance of psychology, history and ethics, he flattered them with proofs that all those terms were hollow and that their ignorance was the source of their greatest intellectual strength. He flattered their sense of uniqueness by publicly discouraging his most obviously foolish acolytes, and, unlike vulgar physical seducers, he apparently asked for absolutely nothing in return for the vertiginous thrills he provided. What some of his victims still don’t understand is that what they gave was precisely the exoneration that he needed most desperately, because every mind that he seduced to his own emptiness was a mind that had thrown away the instruments by which he might be judged.

Victoria Richardson
New York

Vol. 15 No. 22 · 18 November 1993

I was struck by David Bromwich’s observation (LRB, 7 October) that Paul de Man could find in Wordsworth’s ‘Mutability’ an ‘attainment of the right degree of epistemological doubt’ while overlooking that except for ‘the last few lines … the writing is as hackneyed as any specimen of the poet’s duty-ridden later manner.’ Of course de Man was eager to reach the pretext for problematical musings by his very temperament, as Bromwich convincingly shows. But there is also the notorious instance of the problem de Man made out of the last line of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’: ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’

There are two conditions about the de Man case not sufficiently stressed, even here. First of all, English was probably de Man’s fourth or fifth language. He probably grew up speaking Dutch, German, French and perhaps Flemish. De Man published in Flemish. It would be enlightening to know whether he wrote that article himself or whether he needed to have it translated for publication. In any case de Man was deaf to the nuances of English, and therefore found it easy to take refuge in irrelevant problem-making. The other factor is de Man’s sense of cultural exile. My guess is that his acceptance of German hegemony in the historical continuum was based upon a conviction of the superiority of German culture and its language. He could feel only a condescending and limited curiosity about English experiments in what were essentially Continental movements.

In his fascinating – and neglected – study, The Triumph of the English Language, R.F. Jones notes that English antiquaries of the 17th century ‘were indebted to a more or less conscious movement in most of the Germanic countries, a movement slightly prophetic of the Nazis’. ‘The Germans and all things German’ were ‘extravagantly praised’ by first of all citing Tacitus on the virtuous German character. This movement reached its peak in the work of John Van Gorp, a Flemish physician (1518-72), who went so far as to claim that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was German, and that the Old Testament was first composed in pure German, only to be muddied by Hebrew translation. No doubt de Man’s necessarily troubled admiration of German poets and philosophers was more soberly based, but it was pervasive nevertheless. What Bromwich calls de Man’s ‘odd deficiency of verbal tact’ in his readings of English writers does not seem – at least to me – at all odd.

Richard Harrier
Columbia University, New York

Vol. 15 No. 24 · 16 December 1993

If Richard Harrier (Letters, 18 November) wants to indulge in philologico-political innuendo, he should get his facts straight. He complains that ‘even’ (sic) in David Bromwich’s account of ‘the de Man case’, two ‘conditions’ have not yet been sufficiently stressed. First, the ‘condition’ that ‘English was probably de Man’s fourth or fifth language,’ since he ‘probably grew up speaking Dutch, German, French and perhaps Flemish’. A minimal amount of research should have enabled Harrier to realise that Flemish is that variety of Dutch spoken in the southern part of the Dutch speech-area (itself comprising the Netherlands and the northern part of Belgium). For the record: de Man grew up speaking Flemish (his native language) and French (the then culturally dominant language in Belgium); German and English he would have been taught in school. To what extent this may have accounted for de Man’s alleged ‘deaf[ness] to the nuances of English’ is a question best addressed by those who are not themselves arrogantly deaf to the history of Germanic languages. As it is, Harrier would still have to demonstrate that de Man’s comments on Wordsworth and Yeats are indeed exercises in ‘irrelevant problem-making’.

The second ‘condition’ involves ‘de Mans’sense of cultural exile’: Harrier’s ‘guess is that [de Man’s] acceptance of German hegemony in the historical continuum was based upon a conviction of the superiority of German culture and its language.’ Instead of substantiating this guess by anything remotely resembling relevant textual evidence, Harrier lakes off at a tangent invoking, via R.F. Jones, 17th-century English antiquaries’ indebtedness ‘to a more or less conscious movement in most of the Germanic countries, a movement slightly prophetic of the Nazis’ in its ‘extravagant praise’, corroborated by ‘citing Tacitus on the virtuous German character’, for ‘the Germans and all things German’. Harrier then homes in on the work of ‘John Van Gorp, a Flemish physician (1518-72), who went so far as to claim that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was German, and that the Old Testament was first composed in pure German, only to be muddied by Hebrew translation.’ Harrier acknowledges that de Man’s ‘necessarily troubled admiration of German poets and philosophers was more soberly based’, but adds that ‘it was pervasive nevertheless.’ I am not quite certain what to make of this ‘nevertheless’, but it does seem to suggest that to admire Goethe and Hölderlin is somehow to be guilty by implication of sinister silliness such as that imputed to ‘John Van Gorp’. (Incidentally, as his name indicates, Jan van Gorp hailed from Gorp, near Hilvarenbeek, which makes him Dutch, not Flemish, though he spent much of his time in Flanders. The word ‘van’, I might add, is Dutch for ‘of’ or ‘from’, and like ‘de’ in de Man or even de Graef, is generally capitalised in non-initial position only according to a mistaken assumption that to use a lower case indicates noble descent – but that is another story.)

The irony, however, is that Jan van Gorp, aka Johannes Goropius Becanus (in accordance with the Humanist habit of Latinising proper names), did not claim, pace Jones, that ‘German’ was the original Edenic language: instead, he argued, having recourse to spurious etymologies, that this original language was ‘Diets’, a word that still transpires in the German for ‘German’ (Deutsch) and the English for ‘Dutch’ (Nederlands, in Dutch), but which in Becanus’ usage designated the language of the Low Countries as distinct from Latin, German and French dialects. (More recently, the term has been reserved for the register of usually right-wing ideologues who seek the dissolution of Belgium and reunification with the Netherlands, a movement that de Man, for one, explicitly rejected in his war-time journalism.) As there was no standard language in the Low Countries in the 16th century, Becanus further specified in his 1569 Origines Antwerpianae that genuine ‘Diets’ was the language spoken in Antwerp: the people of Antwerp were the true descendants of Japheth, whose tribe was not present when the Tower was built, and their language was consequently untouched by the confusion of Babel.

If, therefore, de Man had been guided by anything like Harrier’s scenario, he should have propagated the superiority, not of German thought and literature but of his own native Antwerp – in practical terms, this could have entailed promoting the work of his great-grandfather, the mediocre but highly popular Romantic poet Jan van Beers (1821-88). His authoritative source would not have been Tacitus but more properly Caesar: ‘Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae.’ The only problem being that these ‘Belgians’ were predominantly Celts, related to those that had moved to England in the first century BC. Here, then, is a new hypothesis which Harrier might want to ponder: perhaps the real reason why de Man was deaf to the nuances of English is that he was actually Irish. And we all know what that means: fear the neighbourhood of that unstable Celtic blood.

Ortwin de Graef
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium

Richard Harrier claims that de Man ‘published in Flemish’, and wonders ‘whether he wrote that article himself or whether he needed to have it translated for publication’. The observation and query display a lack of familiarity with the Belgian linguistic situation that is, alas, widespread, extending even to the authoritative American Heritage Dictionary, which misleadingly defines Flemish as ‘the West Germanic language of the Flemings’. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers a better though incomplete definition: ‘the Dutch language used by the Flemings’.

The confusion is due to the fact that two uses of the term co-exist; they should, however, be kept apart. First, the various spoken local dialects of Northern Belgium (e.g. of Ostend, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Louvain) taken as a group are sometimes – very loosely – called Flemish; in fact the dialect of Ostend is linguistically more properly categorised as a West Flemish one, that of Louvain as a Brabant one. Secondly, the written and spoken Dutch language, officially used in Northern Belgium since 1898 and taught at school as the mother-tongue since 1932, is also sometimes labelled Flemish. But the latter is more often simply called Dutch (Nederlands), as it distinguishes itself from the Dutch spoken and written in the Netherlands mainly by a few differences of vocabulary, largely reflecting distinctive institutional forms. A parallel would be the distinction between the standard German of Germany and that of Austria (not Switzerland, where a highly distinct Swiss-German standard language exists), though Austrian German would seem to be marked by a separate standard of pronunciation. In Flanders, the confusion Flemish/Dutch is exacerbated by the fact that many people try to use standard Dutch, but cannot avoid betraying their various local dialects, often unwittingly, through their pronunciation, word order, idiom etc.

As to de Man, Ortwin de Graef has already commented, in the University of Nebraska’s Responses, on his early linguistic situation, which he calls ‘a complicated form of pseudodiglossia’. De Man grew up a member of a well-to-do Antwerp family, speaking both the local dialect and French, which continues to this day as the standard language of a sizeable part of the Flemish bourgeoisie. At school (the Antwerp atheneum) he would have witnessed the introduction of Dutch as the standard language, at first still vying with French, the former standard. He went on to study at the francophone Université Libre de Bruxelles from 1937. These facts taken together would explain why de Man’s ten contributions to the Dutch-language Het Vlaamsche Land were marked by an insecure and inaccurate Dutch that betrayed the Antwerp dialect he was more familiar with, and why he felt more at ease writing in French, say for Le Soir.

Gert Buelens
Sint-Martens-Latem, Belgium

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