Paul de Man’s Past

Christopher Norris

On 1 December 1987 the New York Times ran a piece under the title ‘Yale Scholar’s Articles Found in Nazi Paper’. The scholar in question was the late Paul de Man, who had written these pieces during the early Forties before leaving Belgium for America. They were published in Le Soir, a newspaper of pro-Nazi sympathies, and contain many passages that can be read as endorsing what amounts to a collaborationist line. There is talk of the need to preserve national cultures against harmful ‘cosmopolitan’ influences; of the Jewish element in modern thought as a threat to this healthy condition; and of German literature as a model for those other, less fortunate traditions that lack such a strong national base. Their language often resorts to organicist metaphors, notions of cultural identity as rooted in the soil of a flourishing native literature. One could draw comparisons with a work like Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, where it is likewise argued that the vitality of ‘satellite’ traditions (for de Man, crucially, the French, Dutch and Belgian) must depend on the continuing existence of a strong hegemonic centre. But of course de Man was writing at a time and in a political situation where thoughts of this kind carried a far more dangerous charge. These texts are utterly remote from de Man’s subsequent writings, not only in their crudity of utterance and sentiment, but also in the way that they uncritically endorse such mystified ideas as the organic relation between language, culture and national destiny, ideas which he would later ‘deconstruct’ with such extreme sceptical vigilance.

Though their existence remained a secret all those years, de Man would, I think, have acknowledged their discovery with the attitude scripta manent: that what is written is written and cannot be tactfully ignored, no matter how far his convictions had changed in the interim. But there are several points that should be made at once against the current chorus of blame. One is that the articles have been mined for passages that show him up in the worst possible light, often by being juxtaposed with other items from Le Soir whose content bears no relation to anything that de Man wrote. Another is the fact that he produced these pieces under intense pressures of political and personal circumstance. His uncle, Hendrik de Man, was a Belgian socialist thinker during the Twenties and Thirties, a government minister whose two terms of office had been marked by numerous disappointments and policy setbacks. His response to the catastrophe of German occupation was to draw up a last-ditch tactical plan, arguing that Nazism might, after all, evolve into something like a genuine National Socialism, and that therefore the only course open was to pin one’s hope to that saving possibility and not hold out against the occupying forces. His biographer, Peter Dodge, traces all the tortuous visions and revisions that led up to this ultimate misjudgment. He sees Hendrik de Man as a tragic figure, forced into exile (and convicted of treason in his absence), not so much through opportunism, compromise or worse, as through a desperate attempt to re-interpret history in the light of his residual socialist faith. Paul de Man was clearly not in a position where any pronouncements of his would take on such a burden of fateful consequence. But it is fair to conjecture that he thought the only prospect of survival for the Belgian people, languages and culture lay in making terms (at least temporarily) with the fact of German occupation, and hoping that National Socialism might indeed be ‘re-interpreted’ in a more favourable light. Again, this is not to excuse those early writings, but to see how they might have been produced by a thinker whose subsequent reflections took such a different path.

For this is what will strike any reader acquainted with the texts that de Man published after his passage to America. One could view this entire subsequent production as an attempt to exorcise the bad memory, to adopt a critical standpoint squarely opposed to that mystified philosophy of language, tradition and organic national culture. Of course it is possible to argue the opposite case, to declare with the wisdom of hindsight that deconstruction was always a ‘nihilist’ activity, that its politics were clearly reactionary, if not protofascist, and that these latest revelations merely confirm what should have been evident from the start. Already the professors are lining up to make statements to this or similar effect. Thus R.W.B. Lewis: ‘deconstruction is antihistorical ... it encourages scepticism about almost anything in the realm of human experience.’ Meanwhile de Man’s colleagues, ex-students and friends have registered a pained and baffled response, finding the articles totally at odds with their knowledge of him in later years. In what follows I have no wish either to minimise the disturbing impact of those early pieces, or to argue that they are simply unconnected with everything he went on to write. Nor can I speak with any firsthand knowledge of his personal qualities as teacher, colleague and intellectual mentor, although a recent volume of tributes (Yale French Studies, 1985) bears eloquent witness in this regard. I want to suggest rather that opponents like Lewis get the lesson completely upside down: that deconstruction evolved, in de Man’s case at least, as a form of rigorous ideological critique directed against precisely that seductive will to treat language and culture as organic, quasi-natural products rooted in the soil of some authentic native tradition. It is important to set the record straight, not least because these latest assaults on de Man have come mainly from critics who evince little knowledge of his subsequent work.

It has often been argued by hostile commentators – among them, Frank Lentricchia – that deconstruction is just a species of ‘textualist’ mystification, a last-ditch retreat from politics and history into the realm of evasive rhetorical strategies. Now this charge has a certain plausibility when applied to those early and middle-period essays of de Man (like ‘Wordsworth and Hölderlin’) where poetry and politics are treated as in some sense antithetical terms. Thus Wordsworth’s narrative of his youthful involvement with revolutionary events in France is read, not only as a chapter in the poet’s subsequent, revisionist account of his own experience, but as a model instance of how poetry works to chasten and subdue such misguided hopes. And this pattern is repeated elsewhere in de Man’s work, often with the same series of implications: that all authentic poetry is the outcome of prolonged reflective self-knowledge; that all political involvements are the upshot of impulsive, unreflecting action; and that criticism is therefore best occupied in drawing out those ‘allegories’ of frustrated hope or non-fulfilment that constitute poetry’s chief lesson in the reading of political events. Such I take to be the coded affirmation, the underlying ‘point’, of those early essays. It is a reading that finds at least a measure of support in what we learn of Hendrik de Man and the fortunes of Belgian socialist politics in the immediate pre-war period. It is hardly surprising, in the light of such experience, that Paul de Man’s work should at this stage evince a strong mistrust of activist creeds, an insistence on the virtues of reflective non-involvement, and an ironic stance toward political events that at times leans over into downright cynicism.

But there is another aspect of those early essays which this reading leaves out of account. It has to do with de Man’s principled rejection of any thinking that claims to go straight to the truth or the heart of the matter, without leaving room for such reflective afterthoughts as might serve to indicate the dangers involved. We may recall, in this connection, his diagnostic reading of Heidegger’s commentaries on Hölderlin, especially his point that Heidegger misinterprets – indeed ‘violates’ – his texts exactly in so far as he wants them to state what can only be shadowed forth obliquely in a mode of self-denying or negative assertion. As de Man writes in a crucial passage: ‘The ineffable demands the direct adherence and the blind and violent passion with which Heidegger treats his texts. Mediation, on the other hand, implies a reflection that tends toward a critical language as systematic and rigorous as possible, but not overly eager to make claims of certainty that it can substantiate only in the long run.’ Again, one can read these words as recommending that thought renounce the temptations of real-world commitment, that it withdraw into a realm of inward, ironic detachment where those temptations would no longer be able to exert their seductive appeal. The passage would then go to confirm all the charges that Lentricchia brings against de Man. But this is to ignore both the evidence of de Man’s later writings on the topic of aesthetic ideology, and the pressured situation to which he was responding at the time of these early texts. For it was Heidegger whose thinking had led to the point of equating ‘authentic’ philosophy with the interests of a single, self-privileged national culture; who had identified truth with the unveiling of a temporal destiny whose origin lay in the sources of Greek (pre-Socratic) speculative thought, and whose signs were now there to be read in the texts of German poetry and philosophy. And it was also the question of Heidegger’s conduct in the years of the Nazi ascent to power that had posed most starkly the whole vexed issue of how far philosophers, from Nietzsche down, had paved the way for National Socialist ideology. At least one can say that Heidegger, and especially Heidegger’s readings of Rilke and Hölderlin, presented de Man with a challenge whose terms were inescapably marked by the shadow of recent historical and political events.

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The following books by and about Paul de Man are available in this country.
Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Methuen, 1983.
The Resistance to Theory, Manchester University Press, 1986.
Mémoires: For Paul de Man by Jacques Derrida, translated by Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler and Eduardo Cadava. Columbia University Press, 1886.
The Lesson of Paul de Man, edited by Peter Brooks, Shoshana Felman and J. Hillis Miller. Yale French Studies No 69, 1985.
Derrida's De l’Esprit: Heidegger et la Question is published by Galilée in Paris.
Hendrik de Man: Socialist Critic of Marxism by Peter Dodge was publsihed by Princeton University Press in 1979.