Paul de Man’s Proverbs of Hell

Geoffrey Hartman

The death of Paul de Man at the age of 64 deprives us of a literary critic whose influence, already immense in the United States and on the Continent, was beginning to be received in England. This influence is not linked to a large body of published work. De Man’s career started late. His studies in philosophy at the University of Brussels were interrupted by the war; after the war, he emigrated to America, taught at Bard, participated in Harvard’s Society of Fellows, took his PhD only in 1959 (his thesis on Mallarmé and Yeats still awaits full publication), and served as a teacher at Cornell, Johns Hopkins and the University of Zurich before settling at Yale in 1970. And although his earliest essays appeared in French during the 1950s (especially in Critique), they were not well-known until the Minnesota edition of Blindness and Insight (1983) incorporated some of them. Blindness and Insight was his first collection, published in 1971; a second major book, Allegories of Reading, appeared in 1980.[*]

Anyone who has read even a single essay of de Man’s can gauge the quality of his mind. Many of his early pieces circulated as if they were dangerous to the academy, and assured him a samizdat reputation. His was an analytical temper that preferred essay to book, and each essay left its mark. Students went to whatever university he was at. That he became a controversial and widely-known scholar only in the last years of his life was in harmony with his bearing. His courtesy was absolute, but so was his refusal to accommodate either the text or his thoughts. The teaching was superb because his intellect was quick and penetrated always beyond the canonical aspects of the philosophical or literary works he took up. The tragedy of his passing is made more acute by the fact that he was, even in his own eyes, just starting to say what he wished to say. His past work he considered prolegomenal to a study of Hegel almost complete at the time he died. In his final years he made his mind increasingly severe; it was hard, in fact, to get him to release earlier essays. (Columbia and Minnesota will, however, bring out some of the uncollected pieces.) The pressure on both text and reader was heightened by a prose that stripped all pathos and uplift from its subject. Yet even as prose it often approached a strange vertigo in its reversing intellectual movement, as if already caught up in that sober revel characterising the ‘absolute spirit’ in Hegel’s Phenomenology.

To gain an estimate of de Man one must first acknowledge the antagonism his work aroused. This adverse reaction had many sources. Some of it was based on vulgar error, and some was intelligent. (De Man himself points out that a piece called ‘The Resistance to Theory’, in the Spring 1982 issue of Yale French Studies, had been commissioned and then rejected by the Modern Language Association, a decision he accepted without rancour.) The most general charge by those unable or unwilling to read him was that his mode of exegesis, the intricate pressure he put on parts of a text, sinned against the direct or public meaning of the work as a whole, erecting rather than knocking down barriers between author and reader, and fascinating the seducible young by strength and ingenuity, rather than justness of mind.

This is an allegation made against intellectuals in almost every generation. They stand accused, in Dryden’s phrase, of injuring the page, of making it speak whatever they please. Books shaped by commonsensical values are turned into a foil for the idiosyncratic thinker: ‘The text inspires not them, but they the text inspire.’ That the ‘injury’ inflicted by de Man is a rigorous ‘deconstruction’ of the text, and, far from being subjective, is curiously impersonal, does not itself calm the polemics. For the critical wars of today seem to have replaced the religious wars of Dryden’s day, and intense speculation in literary matters is treated as a species of enthusiasm.

The modern polemical phase, it should be said, did not begin with de Man, Derrida, and the movement of deconstruction. The storm broke because of the surprising inroads of the New Criticism into the academy. We may consider the New Criticism rather tame, and appreciate it for introducing a tougher pedagogical stance, but traditional scholars feared that its exclusive emphasis on the specifically literary qualities of novel or poem would isolate these from the public. ‘We have been urged to investigate,’ Bonamy Dobrée wrote in The Broken Cistern, the Clark Lectures for 1953, ‘the recondite significance of imagery and symbol, of paradox and ambiguity, of irony and wit, and to embark on the treacherous oceans of the philosophy of language. New instruments have been thrust into our hands ... But haven’t we perhaps ... too exclusively pursued some ultimate, to the shouldering aside of what is most commonly valuable in poetry?” Overanalysed, the well-wrought urn becomes a broken cistern. Common humanity and even the survival of poetry are affected. ‘In paying as we do such attention to matters which only the specialist can be at home with, haven’t we, with great ceremony, brought poetry, not into the wide halls of judgment, but into the academic laboratory?’

If the New Criticism academised and so isolated art, then deconstruction, which suffers under the additional charge of turning everything into text (‘pantextualism’, ‘wall-to-wall textuality’), will obviously have an even harder time in being read by a wide audience. Certain pronouncements like Derrida’s ‘There is no hors texte’ have become notorious: they are taken out of context as statements about reality itself rather than about the difficulty of turning texts inside out. The assumption, now challenged, that texts have the interior/exterior structure of worldly facts – like gloves or houses, for instance – influences a model of interpretation that is all too common: we must find the core of the text, unveil something hidden, or harmonise outside features like figures of speech or verbal tricks with inside features presumed to be psychological.

De Man too, long before knowing of Derrida, began a critique of such models of reading. While still at Harvard, and teaching with Reuben Brower (author of the New Critical and devotedly pedagogical The Fields of Light), de Man insisted that the New Criticism take the full consequences of its emphasis on the literary qualities of a work. For in terms of a theory of literature, these deft critics recoiled from their own discovery that texts were defined pre-eminently by the fact of being texts – that is, made of language rather than ideas. They began to close off rebellious textual complexities (what John Crowe Ransom called, tongue in cheek, ‘irrelevant texture’) by a species of the very ‘heresy of paraphrase’ they had condemned. Having found that words were not rendered less ambiguous by being organised in a literary way – that the ambiguity, or, beyond it, the ambivalence, became more complex and discomfiting – a tendency arose to distinguish the literary from the linguistic in terms that relapsed into humanistic cant. De Man’s early essay, ‘The Dead-End of Formalist Criticism’, on Richards, Empson, Wheelright and Eliot, remains authoritative on this turn toward what he calls incarnational or salvational criticism. Dobrée, in short, wins out; and while close reading continues as a technique, ways are found to short-circuit the contradictions or divisions revealed by that technique.

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[*] The 1983 Blindness and Insight, reviewed by Christopher Norris in LRB, Vol. 6, No 1, is available from Methuen at £7. 50. Allegories of Reading is published by Yale at £24. 50 and £7. 95.

[†] ‘Hegel on the Sublime’ in Displacement: Derrida and After, edited by Mark Krupnick, Indiana University Press (1983).