Paul de Man’s Past
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.
There has, naturally, been much debate as to just how far Heidegger’s thinking was complicit with the purposes of Nazi cultural propaganda. Then again, it is agreed among his commentators that there occurred a decisive ‘turn’ (Kehre) in Heidegger’s thought, a movement away from the kind of appropriative reading that strikes de Man as a form of hermeneutic ‘violence’. This change led Heidegger to stress the need for a self-denying openness (Gelassenheit) to meanings and values that lay beyond the grasp of our modern, rationalistic, ‘enlightened’ understanding. The texts on Hölderlin to which de Man makes reference were written over the period from 1939 to 1954, a period which spans not only the war years but also – significantly – Heidegger’s ‘turn’ towards this new, less assertive or culture-specific way of reading. So it is simplifying matters to treat de Man’s essay as a direct response to those elements in Heidegger’s thought that lent themselves directly to the purposes of nationalist propaganda. But we shall also do less than justice to de Man’s early essays if we ignore – like Lentricchia – that aspect of his thinking which does hold out against the mystifying power of organicist creeds and ideologies. For this is precisely what de Man resists in Heidegger’s readings of Hölderlin: the impulse to identify revealed poetic truth with the power of language – preeminently the German language – to articulate the nature of Being itself. For Heidegger, ‘the essence [Wesen] of what is named [Being] is revealed in the word. By naming Being’s essence, the word separates the essential from the non-essential (or the absolute from the contingent: das Wesen vom Unwesen).’ For de Man, on the contrary, this reading amounts to a reversal, a determinate negation of what Hölderlin actually says. The poet may experience this gulf between desire and fulfilment as the ‘anguishing question’ that impels all authentic thought: ‘how can one not only speak of Being, but say Being itself?’ But when Heidegger finds an affirmative response in Hölderlin’s texts – when he reads them as stating the essence of Being in a mode of self-present, demonstrative truth – he can do so only through an act of hermeneutic ‘violence’ that ignores all the signs of a contrary meaning. Thus, according to de Man, ‘as soon as the word is uttered, it destroys the immediate and discovers that instead of stating Being, it can only state mediation.’
It is in de Man’s resistance to this appropriative drive in Heidegger’s reading that we can make out the earliest signs of his own distinct ‘turn’ toward a form of implicit ideological critique. This conjecture finds support – albeit obliquely – in some recent research by the Belgian scholar Ortwin de Graef. For it emerges that de Man in fact produced a quantity of published work during the period 1938-40, a time when he was studying at the Free University in Brussels, having enrolled first for courses in Civil Engineering, then switched to Chemistry and finally opted for Social Sciences. His articles (mostly short review-essays) appeared in two journals, Les Cahiers du Libre Examen and Het Vlaamsche Land (‘The Flemish Land’). The books he was given to review were mostly in the area of literary history, aesthetics and comparative literature. And among the main themes that run through these articles is the question of national identity, of European culture and the place within it of the various literatures – especially the German and the French – whose destiny de Man regards as closely interlinked. In fact, there are two strains of thought at work in these essays, and between them they generate signs of unmistakable conflict and tension. One is the idea of national traditions as existing ideally in a state of complementary or mutually enriching exchange. Thus he writes (in a passage cited by de Graef) that the future of civilised values must rest on a faith in ‘national personality as a valuable condition and a precious possession’, along with a will ‘to unite the creative forces of all European states’. But elsewhere one finds the argument that these various national cultures can best take a lead from German writers, artists and intellectuals, since it is their particular virtue – in so far as they are ‘authentically’ German – to have given the most articulate expression to this sense of cultural nationhood. And in advancing this case, de Man’s rhetoric strays more than once onto dangerous ground of ‘blood and soil’, of cultural identity as rooted in a sense of predestined (organic) development which can only be asserted over and against all rival nationalist claims.
De Graef takes note of these discomforting metaphors, but also points out that they possessed at this time nothing like the charge of ideological meaning that we may now be tempted to read back into them. Any hint of ‘ambivalence’ in de Man’s thinking must at all events be seen in the context of a Belgian nation already subject to deep linguistic and cultural divisions, and whose very existence was now threatened by German imperialist designs. As with his uncle’s tortuous attempts to save at least some remnant of the socialist ideal by drastically re-interpreting history and politics, so one can read Paul de Man’s earliest essays as a search for some conceivable way forward from this stark and appalling reality. Nevertheless, the main impression left by these texts is of just how remarkably little they have in common with the writings that began to appear some ten years later in Critique and other French-language journals. Thus de Graef comments on the ‘enormous distance’ that de Man had travelled in the interim, a distance marked chiefly by his total rejection of organicist models and metaphors. ‘In 1942, de Man sees literature as an expression of a specific national disposition which can profitably be used as one kind of reliable historical material for the deduction of “a general idea about the destiny of mankind”.’ Nothing could be further from his subsequent attitude of extreme scepticism with regard to all totalising notions of history, all attempts to bypass the problems of attentive close-reading through an appeal to some overt or tacit analogy between historical knowledge and the ‘hermeneutic circle’ of achieved understanding. Such was indeed, as de Man came to think, the principal source of that aesthetic ideology that worked to naturalise the delusions of organicist thinking.
Perhaps the most revealing text in this connection is his essay ‘The Temptation of Permanence’, the French original of which first appeared in 1955. This text marks a definite transitional stage in de Man’s work, not only in so far as it reflects obliquely on his move from Europe to America, but also in the sense of profoundly revaluing those ideals and influences that had shaped his early thought. The essay can be read as a companion-piece to ‘Heidegger’s Exegeses of Hölderlin’, since it finds de Man once again measuring his distance from any criticism that claims to interpret poetry in a language of unmediated truth or proximity to Being. Such is indeed the ‘temptation of permanence’ that manifests itself as the desire to have done with all mediating secular interests – like those of politics and history – and so pass directly to the kind of authentic, primordial concern that finds an answering voice in poetry.
For Heidegger, the antithesis of these values is to be seen in modern technological civilisation, in a process of accelerating secular change that alienates man from nature and destroys the very grounds of remembrance. De Man cites some passages from Heidegger’s later writings where poetry figures as the one potential source of a wisdom that can yet hold out against this drift toward oblivion, and thus offer hope of restoring mankind to a proper relationship with nature and Being. ‘Poetically, man dwells,’ as Heidegger writes in a sentence drawn from Hölderlin that provides the starting-point for one of his best-known meditations on the name and nature of poetry. Through poetry, one glimpses the possibility of an unforced, authentic being-in-the-world that enables man to experience once again that sense of rootedness in time and place that is lost through the will to subjugate nature to the purposes of human technological control. It is this capacity for ‘dwelling’ within language, for inhabiting a world that reveals itself gradually to contemplative thought, and cannot be grasped through any kind of restless, self-interested striving after knowledge – it is this mode of wise receptivity that Heidegger identifies with the saving power of poetry. Only by listening patiently to such language can we hope to regain the sense of that primordial destiny whose signs have been persistently ignored or misread by thinkers from Socrates to the present.
‘The Temptation of Permanence’ is a diagnostic reading of Heidegger’s texts that questions this idea of poetry as somehow giving access to a timeless, aboriginal truth. For it now appears to de Man that such thinking has a dangerous aspect, a tendency to promote forms of mystified understanding whose effects are not confined to the realm of aesthetic speculation. For Heidegger, as he remarks, language takes on a power of etymological suggestion that can easily translate into a nationalist mystique with potentially far-reaching effects. ‘Relying on the relation, in the German language, between the word “destiny” (Geschick) and the word “history” (Geschichte), he affirmed in various ways that history is the concrete manifestation of the very movement of Being, a movement whose fundamental ambiguity is the origin of the historicity of our destiny.’ And this strain of highly-charged etymopoeic reverie goes along with Heidegger’s constant desire to assimilate language to organicist metaphors of origin, growth and natural evolution. Hence the frequent occurrence in his late essays of ‘examples and metaphors borrowed from the life of the earth: the forest, labour, the land etc. The fixed idea seems to be the necessity of protecting the earth, of watching over it as a peasant watches over his fields; technology takes on diabolical proportions in so far as it is the enemy of the earth.’ It is in this sense precisely that Heidegger’s thought manifests the ‘temptation of permanence’, the will to distinguish an authentic temporality – one that respects the predestined vocation of Being and truth – from a secular or fallen historicity that bears witness to man’s fateful swerve from that original destiny. What is always in question for Heidegger is the power of thinking in its genuine, creative or poetic mode to repair the divisions thus inflicted upon human experience. And the metaphors that serve to advance this case – as in the title of Heidegger’s essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, to which de Man makes particular reference – are figures that invite an identification between the process of thought and processes or activities in the physical world that have to do with Man’s relationship to nature. They are tropes intended to reinforce the point that man’s true vocation as a thinking, speaking, listening subject is so closely tied up with his being in the world that only such organicist metaphors can express the truth of his condition.
Now it is a part of the burden of de Man’s argument that these metaphors don’t go together as naturally as Heidegger would have us believe. ‘Building’ and ‘dwelling’ may appear to be aspects of a common enterprise, one that is directed toward furnishing man with a ‘shelter’ whose construction is yet a part of nature, since it enables him, in Heidegger’s words, to ‘dwell on the earth and in his dwelling let the earth be earth’. That is to say: the essential activity of building is one undertaken in natural accord with the conditions – those of our being-in-the-world – that require such constructive enterprise as an aspect of man’s authentic destiny. And the same would apply to creative thinking, in so far as it requires that we hearken to a truth that only language can impart, no matter how far we think to elaborate (‘build’) that truth in verbal constructions of our own apparent creating. It is by means of this complex metaphorical transfer between ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’ – between the constructive and the passive or contemplative aspects of thought – that Heidegger can claim for poetry a power to reconcile all those conflicts and antinomies that plague the discourse of philosophic reason. But it is de Man’s point that this presumed identification is, in fact, the product of a certain linguistic subterfuge: that Heidegger’s claims for the profound unity of ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’ must seem deluded if one reads his text with an eye to its covert rhetorical strategies. For there is all the difference in the world between an act, whether physical or verbal, that issues in the construction of a hitherto non-existent edifice, and a mode of habitation – or poetic ‘dwelling’ – that occupies a place already thus built. Heidegger’s metaphors work to efface this distinction, and along with it the difference between lived history, as a realm of practical choices and decisions, and ‘authentic’ destiny as that which unfolds through a process of quasi-organic evolution.
De Man never goes as far as a thinker like Adorno in condemning the Heideggerian ‘jargon of authenticity’ as a vehicle for the kind of irrationalist mystique whose political expression was the rise of Nazi ideology. His writings continued to engage critically with Heidegger’s thought, but always on the basis of a shared concern with questions de Man finds Heidegger to have raised to a high point of philosophic subtlety. This is clearly why he thinks it so important to distinguish the moments of genuine insight in Heidegger’s readings of Hölderlin or Rilke from the passages where a certain self-motivated ‘blindness’ to the workings of his own rhetoric leads Heidegger to mystify the nature of poetic understanding. And this emphasis emerges in de Man’s writing alongside a shift of geopolitical priorities that begins to discover more hopeful portents in American than in European culture. Thus Heidegger is cast as the ‘authentic’ but none the less deluded voice of a self-proclaimed national destiny, a destiny that is identified all too closely with the German language, its expressive resources, and its power of conserving a threatened truth against the ravages of modern technocratic reason. To de Man, on the contrary, such thinking now appears a species of seductive illusion. ‘It is more dangerous than technical thinking since instead of attacking an earth which is quite capable of defending itself, it betrays the movement of being.’
One might gather from this last formulation that de Man’s language is still in thrall to a strongly Heideggerian thematics of origins, Being and truth. But his point is again that Heidegger falls into error in so far as he thinks that language can articulate such truths in a mode of immediate apprehension that would finally transcend history, reason and the antimonies of conscious thought. Such is de Man’s chief objection to Heidegger’s readings of Hölderlin: that they presume to state explicitly what the poet can only suggest through a language that everywhere acknowledges its own inevitable failure to reconcile these disparate realms. This strikes de Man as a form of hermeneutic violence, a will to penetrate to the truth of a text whose truthfulness lies in its way of avoiding such premature and dangerous absolutes. And in ‘The Temptation of Permanence’ we can see just why – and on what ideological grounds – de Man arrived at this position. Heidegger’s desire to have poetry achieve an authentic overcoming or transcendence of Man’s divided condition is complicit with his will to identify language – and the German language preeminently – with the voice of revealed truth. In both aspects his thinking courts the danger of confusing history with processes of natural evolution and growth, a confusion which de Man was later to track through its numerous showings in the discourse of post-Romantic critical thought.
From a certain point of view – that which de Man espoused in his subsequent writings – one has ‘explained’ nothing by pointing to these likely influences and pressures on his early development. The texts, after all, are there to be read, and indeed no critic has done more than de Man to discourage the kind of lazy or short-cut ‘reading’ that passes clean through the complexities of textual understanding to arrive at some putative psychobiographical content. To this extent, we read in defiance of his own repeated counsel if we respond to the critical rigour of his later texts by asking what might have been the motives, political or otherwise, that led to his adopting the stance they exhibit. Nevertheless I would argue that the two approaches are not incompatible: that we can read those texts with a due regard to their rhetorical and argumentative structures without renouncing all interest in de Man’s intellectual life-history.
In his essay ‘Criticism and Crisis’, de Man himself makes a comparable claim in relation to Husserl and the project of transcendental phenomenology. This project was epitomised in the lectures which Husserl delivered in Vienna in 1935, and which were subsequently published under the title The Crisis of the European Sciences. In them, Husserl laid out the programme of a new philosophy that would finally secure the bases of knowledge, reason and truth; that would combat the threat of an encroaching relativist or nihilist outlook by grounding thought in an apodictic ‘science’ of primordial intuitions immune to further questioning or doubt. He would thus carry through the foundationalist project that others before him (like Descartes and Kant) had attempted but ultimately failed to achieve. And he would do so by suspending all commonsense or merely ‘psychological’ sources of knowledge, by systematically doubting whatever could be called into doubt, and thus working down to the bedrock of epistemological certitude that philosophy and science required. Only by such a radical rethinking of knowledge, its constitutive powers and limits, could European culture be recalled to a sense of its authentic historical destiny.
For de Man, this programme offers a striking case in point of the link between ‘criticism’ and ‘crisis’, a link that is of more than merely etymological interest. For it is always through a certain ‘rhetoric of crisis’ that criticism seeks, like Husserl, to escape the relativity or the partial insights of a previous way of thinking. But such claims can be advanced only by virtue of a certain correlative ‘blindness’ to the limiting conditions that govern their utterance. Thus Husserl speaks, on the one hand, for a universal concept of human reason, for a supra-national community of mind which philosophy can best work to achieve by discounting those merely local or culture-specific differences that would stand in the way of such an ideal consensus. Indeed, his entire project is premised on the faith that this ‘transcendental’ viewpoint can at last be attained, thus refuting the kind of relativist argument that follows from acknowledging the ultimately incommensurable character of different languages and cultures. But this set of claims must be seen to conflict with Husserl’s stress on the fate of European philosophy and science, on the need for a certain highly-developed form of theoretical reason to assert its authority over and against those other, less enlightened or self-critical traditions. Thus ‘Husserl speaks repeatedly of non-European cultures as primitive, pre-scientific and pre-philosophical, myth-dominated and congenitally incapable of the disinterested distance without which there can be no philosophical meditation.’ Such an outlook is implicit in the very structure of Husserlian reflection, in its will to suspend all ideas deriving from the ‘natural’ or common-sense attitude, and to put in their place a more adequate knowledge acquired through rigorous, self-disciplined thought. Clearly there is a sense in which these categories work to endorse the superior vantage-point and privileged destiny of European man. And this despite the fact that, by his own definition, philosophy transcends such limiting cultural perspectives in the quest for ‘eidetic’ or self-evident truths which are accessible to all mankind.
Husserl is thus caught up in precisely that alternating rhythm of ‘blindness’ and ‘insight’ that de Man will go on to analyse at length in his subsequent essays. But in Husserl’s case we can see most clearly what might be the ultimate political stakes of this seeming obsession with textual aporias or moments of rhetorical stress and strain. For it is Husserl’s situation as self-elected spokesman for Europe in its moment of greatest crisis and danger that sets the main terms for de Man’s discussion in these pages. His text reveals ‘with striking clarity the structure of all crisis-determined statements’. It programmatically asserts what cannot be the case according to its own more rigorous logic, or what has to be exempted from critical inspection in order to provide a starting-point for criticism itself. The privilege attaching to ‘European’ values (reason, self-criticism, disinterested enquiry) is the one thing that cannot be called into question without undermining the very rationale of Husserlian phenomenology. Thus ‘the crucial, determining examination on which depends Husserl’s right to call himself, on his own terms, a philosopher, is, in fact, never undertaken. As a European, it seems that Husserl escapes from the necessary self-criticism that is prior to all philosophical truth about the self.’ Yet de Man is not suggesting that this blindness was in any sense avoidable, or that Husserl should stand accused of bad faith on account of his failure to perceive these contradictions. Their significance lies in the fact that Husserl gave voice to a genuine crisis in the European sciences of man, a crisis whose outcome he could hardly anticipate (writing in 1935), but whose conflicts are already deeply inscribed in the character of his project. ‘Since we are speaking of a man of superior good will, it suffices to point to the pathos of such a claim’ – i.e. philosophy’s task of preserving the high destiny of European culture – ‘at a moment when Europe was about to destroy itself as centre in the name of its unwarranted claim to be the centre.’
It is not too much to claim that de Man experienced his own predicament as in some ways closely resembling that of Husserl. In his case also, the very future of European civilisation had presented itself under the aspect of crisis, a crisis that de Man (in his earliest writings) had hoped to see averted through the reconciling power of an authentic meditation on the destiny of national cultures. But this hope had collapsed, and with it his belief that such thinking could offer any prospect of enlightened change. No doubt this sense of failure was intensified by the spectacle of Heidegger’s apparent willingness, at one stage, to identify National Socialism with the resurgence of authentic Being and truth. And one could speculate further that Heidegger’s radical re-interpretation of Husserl – his turn away from the rigours of transcendental critique toward an existential brooding on mortality, finitude, Being and time – came to strike de Man as a dangerous betrayal of Husserl’s original project. At all events, de Man’s own writing would henceforth take on a demystifying rigour more akin to Husserl’s than to anything in Heidegger’s work. And this despite his clear perception (in ‘Criticism and Crisis’) that enlightenment as Husserl understood it – ‘a process by means of which naive assumptions are made available to consciousness by an act of critical self-understanding’ – must always go along with a certain blindness to its own constitutive motives and interests.
For the only way forward, as it now appeared, was to acknowledge this predicament and yet keep faith with the project of enlightened critique. ‘Speaking in what was in fact a state of urgent personal and political crisis about a more general form of crisis, Husserl’s text ... establishes an important truth: the fact that philosophical knowledge can only come into being when it is turned back upon itself ... The rhetoric of crisis states its own truth in the mode of error. It is itself radically blind to the light it emits.’ In this passage, de Man sets out what amounts to a programme for his own critical work over the next two decades. That work will undertake to demystify the sources of aesthetic ideology in its various forms, especially where these lend credence to the illusion of history as a process of predestined organic evolution. It will do so, very much in the manner of Husserl, by as far as possible suspending such naturalised habits of thought, exposing them to the kind of lucid critique that draws out their unacknowledged blind-spots of prejudice. But de Man also preserves a keen sense of the structural irony that emerges in his reading of Husserl: namely, the tendency of all such ‘enlightened’ or demystifying projects to posit another, naive or deluded, state of consciousness against which to play off their own superior insights. Hence, on the one hand, de Man’s insistence that all critical thinking – his own included – partakes of a certain constitutive ‘blindness’ in relation to the text it seeks to comprehend. Hence also his refusal of the constant temptation to evade this negative knowledge by ignoring textual or rhetorical complications and thus claiming access to truths of experience untouched by critical self-doubt. This is the temptation that Husserl falls into when, writing as a European’, he assumes a standpoint of superior cognitive grasp and so exempts his own discourse from the kind of sceptical scrutiny which alone might justify its philosophic claims.
In his late essays de Man returns to the model of the classical trivium, the discipline that incorporated logic, grammar and rhetoric, agruing that rhetoric has long been demoted to a merely ancillary position on account of its power to disrupt or unsettle the certitudes of philosophical reason. And his heightened sensitivity to the virtues of rhetorical close-reading coincided with his move from Europe to America and his encounter with the New Criticism in its most productive and stimulating moment. That these facts are not unconnected is clear enough from his retrospective comments on the New Criticism in ‘The Return to Philology’ (1982). What most impressed him was its in-built resistance to premature absolutes: ‘Mere reading, it turns out, prior to any theory, is able to transform critical discourse in a manner that would appear deeply subversive to those who think of the teaching of literature as a substitute for the teaching of theology, ethics, psychology, or intellectual history. Close reading accomplishes this often in spite of itself because it cannot fail to respond to structures of language which it is the more or less secret aim of literary teaching to keep hidden.’ At this time de Man was clearly in a state of maximum alert against any temptation to bypass those rhetorical checks and resistances that stood opposed to the seductions of aesthetic ideology. And his subsequent writings give evidence enough of his determination to maintain this stance through a sequence of increasingly complex theoretical positions.
His passage to America can therefore be seen as a turning-point in his intellectual history. It marked his transition from a strongly Eurocentric standpoint – one still characterised by a deep, if ambivalent regard for the writings of Husserl, Heidegger and phenomenological criticism – to a stress on the virtues of textual close-reading and on rhetoric as the chief and most reliable means of exposing the blind-spots engendered by that same tradition. In ‘Crisis and Criticism’ de Man asks pointedly just why Husserl should have drawn such sharp geo-political limits to the otherwise (and in principle) universal spread of enlightened critical thought. ‘Why this expansion should have chosen to stop, once and for ever, at the Atlantic Ocean and at the Caucasus, Husserl does not say.’ And the same question is raised in ‘The Temptation of Permanence’, where there develops a kind of dialectical agon between Europe and America, the latter conceived as a land of open possibilities unburdened by the sense of cultural destiny that bears down so heavily on European thinkers. Thus de Man cites a passage from Rilke, also taken up by Heidegger, in which the poet complains that ‘from America have come to us now empty, indifferent things, artificial things which deceive us by simulating life ... A house, or an apple tree, or a grapevine has nothing in common with the house, the fruit or the grape in which our ancestors have invested their hopes and cares.’ These sentiments chime with Heidegger’s contempt for American civilisation, in particular those two aspects of it – technology and pragmatism as a home-grown philosophic creed – which he saw as symptoms of well-nigh terminal decline. But de Man responds to these charges by suggesting that ‘perhaps in the degree to which technology is impoverishment and burns history without leaving material residue, technology forces us to rid ourselves of what is after all only a false serenity.’ Rilke’s and Heidegger’s ancestral dreams would then appear not only as wishful illusions but as symptoms of a deep-laid conservative mystique inimical to history and change.
In his last few years of concentrated activity, de Man laid plans for a detailed study of Marx, Adorno, Althusser and other such thinkers in the tradition of radical Ideologiekritik. It is possible that some of these texts may yet be published, or at least that sufficient material exists to reconstruct the main outlines of de Man’s argument. But on the basis of those writings we do possess it is clear that his work had long been directed toward problems in exactly this area. The articles in Le Soir will no doubt continue to be seized upon by those anxious to discredit that work and save themselves the trouble of reading his more difficult and representative texts. They might be given pause by what Derrida writes in Mémoires, his volume of lectures in tribute to de Man, first delivered at Irvine in 1984. Here Derrida meditates on the themes of mourning, memory and historical understanding, on ‘what could be considered Paul de Man’s relation to the “political”, to what we tranquilly and commonly call politics, to his “experience” of the thing’. The lectures were given at a time when he presumably had no knowledge of de Man’s early writings in Le Soir, a fact that may seem to render their testimony less than compelling. But if one reads them alongside Derrida’s latest writings on Nietzsche and Heidegger, there emerges a pattern of thought about language, politics, historical destiny and the ethics of writing and interpretation – questions that connect at every point with Derriod’s reading of de Man.
It is impossible to offer any useful brief account of these texts, the more so since Anglo-American commentators have remained, on the whole, stubbornly unresponsive to the ethical dimension of Derrida’s writing. But he does make the point that thinkers must always be held accountable for subsequent, ‘politicised’ uses of their writing; that even though their words may be taken out of context, ‘misread’ or subjected to acts of hermeneutic violence, nevertheless such readings are to some extent allowed for – even ‘programmed’ in advance – by what these authors actually wrote. At the same time he argues that intentions can never know their ends, that texts may indeed be enlisted in the service of political creeds which the writers in question would have found both contemptible and remote from their own ideas. And this leads Derrida to reflect on the radical ambivalence of Heidegger’s project, the way that any such appeal to language – one particular, self-privileged national language – may turn out to betray its best insights through a kind of inbuilt fatality. Thus he notes how de Man, in Allegories of Reading, takes the well-known sentence of Heidegger, Die Sprache spricht – ‘language speaks’ – and changes it to read Die Sprache verspricht (sich), or (approximately rendered) ‘language necessarily undoes itself to the extent that no intention can entirely govern its meaning or effects.’
Again, Derrida is far from suggesting that Heidegger was ultimately not responsible for what he wrote at this time or that his ill-famed inaugural speech as Rector of Freiburg University – the occasion on which he came closest to identifying the destiny of German and European culture with the fortunes of National Socialism – was a mere aberration brought about by effects of linguistic undecidability. But he does ask us to read these texts as the shadow-side of a quest for language in its authentic, truth-telling aspect, a quest whose fateful consequences Heidegger could scarcely have foreseen. And it is clear that Derrida’s thinking on this topic is much indebted to those chapters in Allegories of Reading where de Man strives to articulate the relation between language, history, politics and the realm of as-yet unrealised future possibility. ‘The upheaval of history.’ as Derrida writes in Mémoires,
is clearly what determines what happens to the Sprechen (let us say the Heideggerian Sprechen, that of die Sprache spricht) when it must, always already, give itself up to and be affected by the versprechen. This cannot happen to it; from the origin on, it is destined to it; this is its destination, even though the versprechen threatens destination in it ... These accidents are essential, they do not happen to theSprechen from the outside.
It is possible to read such passages now as applying not only to Heidegger’s ill-fated utterances but also to those early articles of de Man whose existence was at this time unrumoured. In fact, there are interesting comparisons to be drawn between the text of Derrida’s recent work on Heidegger (De l’Esprit, 1987) and his commemorative lectures on de Man. What he writes about the fateful ‘drift’ of Heideggerian reflection, its tendency to become ‘disturbed, corrupted, perverted, affected’ by forces beyond its control, is very close to de Man’s often cryptic formulations in Allegories of Reading. And these passages seem all the more charged and ironic when read in the knowledge that de Man was himself engaged in a painful and prolonged reckoning with his own past errors.
De Man’s case is different from Heidegger’s, in the sense that his articles in Le Soir are strikingly untypical of everything he went on to write, whereas Heidegger’s espousal of National Socialism – however brief and highly qualified in retrospect – does bear an obvious kinship to his lifelong meditation on language, culture and the destiny of authentic thought. What Derrida’s reading most pointedly insists upon is the ethical obligation to treat those texts of de Man in the light of the work he subsequently produced, and of his efforts, not only to put such thinking behind him, but to understand its historical antecedents and the source of its erstwhile potent appeal. Apparently there are plans to collect the early pieces in a volume with commentaries by Derrida and others, not all of them well-disposed toward de Man’s critical stance. So one may hope that the present round of opportunist polemics will give way to a more responsible discussion of the issues these articles raise.
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.
Vol. 10 No. 4 · 18 February 1988
SIR: Since you devoted nearly sixteen columns of your issue of 4 February to an appraisal by Christopher Norris of the work of Paul de Man, you presumably do not share my view that most of it was gibberish. I quote a typical passage: ‘Heidegger’s thought manifests … the will to distinguish an authentic temporality – one that respects the predestined vocation of Being and truth – from a secular or fallen historicity that bears witness to man’s fateful swerve from that original destiny.’ Will you explain to me what you think this means?
I have no ambition to claim that I understand the writings of Heidegger, or their interpretation. The gist, or geist, here, is that things have turned out badly for us, in ways that affect our experience of time. I was very interested in the story of which Paul de Man’s engagement with Heidegger forms part.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Christopher Norris’s article in the last issue, on the work of Paul de Man, was accompanied by a box giving details of some relevant publications. Shoshana Felman’s name was misspelled there, and so was that of Peter Dodge, author of a book on Hendrik de Man.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 10 No. 5 · 3 March 1988
SIR: I am sorry that A.J. Ayer (Letters, 18 February) failed to understand my article on Heidegger and Paul de Man. It addressed what I take to be important issues, and attempted to do so in a decently accessible manner. But he might try reading the piece again and suspending some of those fixed ideas which have made it such a high point of principle, among English-speaking philosophers, to profess stupefied astonishment whenever they come across Heidegger’s name. He might also pay a bit more attention to straightforward matters of context and argument. The sentence he cites as a ‘typical passage’ (typical of my own, not Heidegger’s style) was in fact offered by way of critical comment on the mystifying effects of such language.
University of Wales
Vol. 10 No. 6 · 17 March 1988
SIR: Christopher Norris’s essay on ‘Paul de Man’s Past’ in your issue of 4 February deserves attention as an honest and generally lucid attempt by a sympathiser with de Man to come to terms with the recent revelations about that critic’s wartime publications in collaborationist Belgian papers. I feel particularly qualified to comment, not only because I am de Man’s successor at the Department of Comparative Literature in Cornell, but also because I myself spent the years of the German occupation in the Low Countries.
The importance of Mr Norris’s study lies in the fact that it provides a coherent historical and biographical picture of de Man’s intellectual development. Although Mr Norris admits that he uses this approach in defiance of de Man’s own repeated counsel, he still feels that it is not incompatible with his subject’s lessons. I beg to differ, and think it needs special emphasis that the elucidation requires principles that are radically at odds with de Man’s own philosophy.
In theory, though, Mr Norris takes de Man’s philosophy very seriously indeed. He expatiates on de Man’s demystification of Heidegger’s view that the language of German poetry dwells in the immediate proximity of Being, and connects it with the Belgian critic’s own rejection of his early infatuation with organicist metaphors that claimed to provide an immediate access to truth. Similarly, in exposing European preconceptions in the putatively universal viewpoint from which Husserl wanted to overcome the modern crisis, de Man remembers the fatal entanglements of his own crisis consciousness. Against all these totalising notions, fraught with ‘blindness’, de Man directs a ceaseless struggle for critical ‘insight’ based on close reading, on the continual exposure of language’s mystificatory rhetorical strategies. I have little doubt that de Man saw things in this way, but I am from the outset struck by a colossal disproportion. ‘Organicism’ sounds respectable – but can we really say that about those columns in Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land? Mr Norris himself mentions their crudity. They are in fact common Nazi hack work, excruciatingly dull and totally unoriginal, embarrassing to read in their mediocrity; even as experiments in blindness, they have no common measure with Husserl’s Eurocentrism or with Heidegger’s oracular obscurantism.
The true problem, however, lies elsewhere. Actually we are dealing with a mere surface version of de Man’s historical experience – its idealisation into near-abstractness, its dilution into the rarefied air of the ‘history of ideas’. But the history that de Man lived, that we all lived, was pressing and concrete. Mr Norris’s historical approach is not historical enough.
The later de Man is first and foremost a brilliant and sophisticated close reader of texts. But in the midst of his often dazzling peformance, we are confronted with a small number of unproved and unproven philosophical assumptions that keep recurring with almost maniacal inevitability. There is a major discrepancy between the overall critical subtlety of the readings and the often simplistic nature of those presuppositions. This strange duality has remained hidden from true believers, who are never noted for watchfulness. They are to some degree excused by the fact that these invariable premises are cleverly smuggled into a highly subtle discourse in whose subtlety they can easily seem to share. De Man’s texts tend to be virtuoso exercises in circularity where the presupposition is produced in the guise of a tortuously elaborated end-result. Nevertheless, the duality has long been clear to unmystified readers. I was one of them and was always sorely puzzled: now, having read the Belgian essays, I think I understand.
What helps me do so is my own historical experience, which was unfortunately quite concrete. How could one view the publication of articles such as de Man’s, written by a Belgian, in occupied Belgium in 1941 and 1942? Only as an act of unspeakable moral shabbiness. And what must have been the status of such an author in 1945? Nothing less than that of a moral, political and probably social outcast. This may be hard to understand for a generation safely shielded from that period by temporal distance, and often by a chronic lack of historical insight. We can be certain, though, that it was fully understood by de Man. In the light of the atrocious revelations that flooded us in 1945, he may even have reconsidered that praise of the Germans as exquisitely civilised occupiers which he had found it necessary to insert into a literary article at the time of his country’s humiliation. He must have been permanently traumatised by events.
This I perceive to be the figure in the carpet, the ultimate historical and biographical ground of those stubborn presuppositions that pervade de Man’s later work. Meaningfully coherent historical narratives are illusory; there is no subject, no real author – and if there seems to be, he knows not what he does. Texts are infinitely tricky, they never say what they seem to say, they always say the opposite, or both. The demystificatory uncovering of rhetorical subversions again and again escalates into a programmatic (and utterly simplistic) substitution of technical rhetorical categories for existential categories, until the latter cease to exist. Who can fail to detect a pattern of retreat from life, of denial of responsibility – an unending and tortuous process of disculpation and evasion? This is much more than the rejection of a silly blood-and-soil ‘organicism’: it is a deep-seated urge to dilute, to dissolve the weight of the past. Mr Norris comes close to this syndrome only at the end of his apologetics, à propos of the question of ethical responsibility. Revealingly, his argument here becomes muddled and contorted, jumping to and fro between de Man and Derrida, and finally turning the spit around by declaring that it is our ethical obligation to read de Man’s early texts in the light of his later ones.
I think that I have fulfilled this obligation, though hardly in the way Mr Norris had in mind. I hope he will not view this as a reason to dismiss my letter as an instance of the ‘opportunist polemics’ he deplores. One could argue at length about what is opportunistic and what is not. Some might even see opportunism in the writing of books on authors with currently overblown reputations. As for de Man, I do wish his case (a very minor one in the final reckoning) could be laid to rest. But this is hardly possible as long as he remains the object of a personality cult (even at its best, an unacceptable attitude in circles that lay claim to intellectuality), and as long as students continue to be ideologically indoctrinated with his very particular idiosyncrasies.
Cornell University, New York
We are indebted to Professor Holdheim for his interesting letter. More letters on this subject will appear in the next issue.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: I shall be obliged if Christopher Norris (Letters, 3 March) will identify, in plain English prose, two ‘important issues’ which his article on Heidegger and Paul de Man addressed, and indicate briefly what light it threw upon them.
Vol. 10 No. 7 · 31 March 1988
SIR: Christopher Norris’s apologia for Paul de Man (LRB, 4 February) made the best of what is by any odds a bad situation. Yet even in the terms Norris argues the case, major problems still remain:
Historical context. Though no dates are given, Hendrik de Man’s alleged effort to extract ‘socialism’ from National Socialism is absurd on the face of it. Surely what happened to the Strasser brothers should have revealed that long before Paul de Man’s uncle was faced with the fact of German occupation. Besides, what predispositions about nation and race would Hendrik de Man have had to possess even to consider such a possibility? And Norris’s conjecture that Paul de Man may have faced similar pressures is just that – a conjecture with no supporting evidence. Moreover, I don’t see why de Man’s writings of 1939-1940 wouldn’t possess the ‘charge of ideological meaning that we may now be tempted to read back into them’. Surely by that date what the Nazis were up to was hardly shrouded in secrecy.
Implications for literary theory. Though R.W.B. Lewis’s comments may have reflected old in-house (Yale) rivalries, he does have a point about the ‘ahistorical’ nature of deconstruction. Indeed Norris takes the point when he notes de Man’s suspicion of placing texts in personal and historical contexts. This is not to insinuate that all textualists (whether New Critics or Deconstructionists) have something ominous to hide or are cynical fascists. But it does suggest something the textualists will never acknowledge: that we haven’t understood a text fully, even if such an understanding implies that we can never get it all right since the text undermine its own efforts at coherence, if we haven’t tried to understand the conditions of its coming into existence. If this involves using ‘putative psychobiographical content’, so be it.
Finally, Norris fails to deal with de Man’s failure to acknowledge publicly what he had written in the late Thirties and early Forties. Important though the later shift in de Man’s theoretical orientation may have been, readers of de Man can hardly be faulted for failing to get the political and personal point. George Steiner said that Heidegger’s great flaw was not that he flirted with, and even actually courted, the Nazis, but that after 1945 he never deigned to explain himself, much less admit that he had been wrong. It seems to me that the same sort of charge can be brought against de Man.
SIR: In a world of ceaseless change, where the flux of intellectual fashion carries us mercilessly along from crisis to crisis and from trend to trend, it is reassuring to know that some things never change. A prime example is A.J. Ayer’s attitude towards Continental philosophy. From the publication of Language, Truth and Logic to his recent response (Letters, 18 February) to Christopher Norris’s essay on ‘Paul de Man’s Past’, one can detect a continuity of intellectual enterprise which can be summarised by the following axiom: Continental philosophy is gibberish. Ayer’s attitude is one of acute mistrust and, dare we say, miscomprehension, treating the philosophy of the outre-manche as blundering ungrammatical jargon and thereby widening the already sizeable gulf that separates the analytic and the Continental philosophical traditions.
I commend Christopher Norris’s attempt to understand Heidegger’s thinking and to elaborate the parallelism and non-parallelism of Heidegger’s and de Man’s history of political engagement. It was delicately done – although I find myself in disagreement with elements of his interpretation. This attempted to show how de Man’s work prepares the way for a species of ideological critique, notably a critique of Heidegger’s and Husserl’s ‘Europocentrism’ – and would consequently differentiate de Man’s case from that of Heidegger (is there no preparation for ideological critique in Heidegger?). Although the Spirit-ridden skeleton of Heidegger’s political past will always return to haunt us, can we not show, as Derrida has recently attempted in De l’esprit, that Heidegger’s repetition of the tradition prepares an opening onto that which is wholly other to the tradition and which may, as a consequence, displace the political organicism of National Socialist ideology?
Much still remains to be thought on both sides of the gulf that separates the analytic and Continental traditions, and to condemn the latter as gibberish because it does not correspond to or imitate the criteria of the former is to commit the worst intellectual crime, that of closing down one of the possibilities for thinking. And, of course, to keep open a space for thinking was Heidegger’s point.
University of Essex
Vol. 10 No. 8 · 21 April 1988
SIR: A.J. Ayer (Letters, 17 March) asks me to ‘identify, in plain English prose, two “important issues” which [my] article on Heidegger and Paul de Man addressed, and indicate briefly what light it threw upon them’. Professor Ayer knows as well as anyone that talk of ‘plain English’ is often a rhetorical ploy, a pretext for the kind of short-cut argument and anti-intellectualism that have marked some of the more dismal episodes in our island history. Perhaps I can save your readers’ time by pointing to the other letters you have received on this topic, most of them distinctly hostile but none of them – Ayer excepted – suggesting that this is a trivial business, or professing a total inability to grasp what my article said. Most likely he is just teasing and doesn’t really expect me to boil down a long and complex argument into one or two sentences of Basic English. Or perhaps the message hasn’t yet got through: that the Verification Principle failed its own test and so became the single most spectacular case of a self-deconstructing philosophic doctrine.
But this is to reduce the whole debate – as perhaps Professor Ayer would wish – to the level of knockabout polemics. So let me say once again: these are serious matters and not just the latest excuse for resurrecting old philosophical feuds. The discovery of de Man’s writings in Le Soir has caused great pain to his friends, colleagues and students, and also given rise to a widespread campaign of distorted coverage in the American and British press. Journalists have picked up the ‘facts’ of the case at second or third hand, and retailed them without the least effort to check their documentary sources. It has often been suggested that all or most of de Man’s articles for Le Soir – some hundred and seventy discovered to date – were either overtly anti-semitic or designed to lend support to Nazi cultural propaganda. In fact, just a handful of these pieces can possibly be read in such a light, and only one – his thoroughly obnoxious piece on the Jewish influence in contemporary literature – be said to warrant the charge of downright racialist sentiment. Of those remaining, many are reviews of various local artistic events – symphony concerts, chamber recitals, poetry readings and so forth – which occasionally touch on the question of national identity vis-à-vis the war and the current upheaval in European politics, but which cannot in all fairness be accused of exploiting those events for propaganda purposes.
De Man has a good deal to say about the shifting balance of power in Europe over the past two centuries, mostly by way of reflecting on the French collapse and the rise of post-Bismarck Germany as a nation state with the strength to assert its hegemonic claims. But he also makes a point of insisting, over and over again, that any workable programme of post-war reconstruction in Europe will have to make terms with the fact of cultural-linguistic diversity, a fact most apparent (then as now) in the divided condition of his own native Belgium. In particular, he argues that ‘French’ cultural values – reason, lucidity, disinterested critical thought – must somehow be brought into balance with the ‘German’ virtues of profundity, wisdom and greatness of soul. Of course there is something decidedly suspect about this habit of thinking in typecast nationalist terms. But it does help to pinpoint the deep ambivalence that runs through many of these articles.
In the years immediately preceding the war de Man had been involved with a journal, Les Cahiers du Libre Examen, whose editorial policy was squarely opposed to the line later adopted in Le Soir. The proper business of criticism – so de Man and his colleagues affirmed – was not to give way to short-term political pressures, but to hold out for the freedom of disinterested judgment and preserve a space for enlightened public debate. And furthermore, they pledged the journal to a continued defence of such values specifically against any violent imposition of dogmatic creeds and ideologies. Les Cahiers turned out to be a short-lived venture, since the Nazi occupation (just two years after its inaugural number) made it impossible for any publication openly to espouse such views.
That de Man went on to write his pieces for Le Soir may seem all the more an opportunist and cynical act of self-betrayal. But I think those later articles do make a genuine if muted attempt to envisage how the European nations might yet survive an all-out German victory while to some degree preserving their cultural identity intact. And this feeling is at its strongest when de Man touches – as he very often does on the topic of l’esprit Français and its role in the history of European thought. There is a piece on Charles Péguy (6 May 1941) that offers perhaps the most pointed example of these tensions in de Man’s thinking. Péguy was a young French socialist and Catholic intellectual who began writing in the mid-1890s, became passionately involved with political events (including the Dreyfus affair), and died in action during the Battle of the Marne. De Man clearly admires his work, especially as founder and editor-in-chief of Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, a journal that pursued a fiercely independent line and attracted the hostility of right and left-wing factions alike.
Any reference to the Dreyfus case must of course raise the question of anti-semitism and the resistance to it mounted by writers like Péguy and, most famously, Zola. De Man – it is worth noting – praises Péguy for having ‘remained a Dreyfusard to the end’, one who impressed his comrades as a ‘passionate thinker, imbued with the ideas of socialism and egalitarian justice’. It may be overgenerous to suggest, as some have done, that de Man was conducting a kind of cryptic resistance campaign through these writings, with one plain message for the cultural watchdogs and another for those who could read between the lines. But there is a strong sense, in this article and others, that de Man is still signalling his allegiance to the ideals set forth with such clarity and vigour in Les Cahiers du Libre Examen. Thus he makes a point of adverting to the title of Péguy’s review and its connections with ses cahiers d’école, si propres, si bien tenus. And what he singles out for praise in Péguy’s work is its spirit of liberal enquiry, a spirit that allowed him to range freely over topical questions ‘without any governing interest or constraint’.
In fact, there is evidence that de Man’s sympathies were not only divided but complex to the point of downright political confusion. What is one to make of the article published on 14 July 1942-anniversary of the French Revolution – where de Man nominates the Surrealist movement, and especially the work of Paul Eluard, as by far the most impressive recent sign of French cultural vitality? It is all the more remarkable that he ventured this estimate while reviewing a journal (Messages) known for its links with the French Resistance as well as with Communist or left-leaning elements in the Surrealist group. One could interpret such passages as indicating either a very weak grasp of political realities on de Man’s part or perhaps – more generously – a will to keep the channels of communication open and to risk what must have been, by this late date, the very real threat of reprisals from the Nazi censorship. The same might be said of his occasional admiring references to Kafka and other Jewish authors who had long since been condemned as decadent modernists by the Nazi cultural hacks. However one reads them – as courageous or naive – these passages must at least complicate our sense of de Man’s ‘collaborationist’ activity. Furthermore, it now appears (according to his son, Marc de Man) that he also wrote articles for the Resistance paper Les Voix de Silence. So there is good reason to suspend final judgment until more of this conflicting evidence becomes available.
University of Wales, Cardiff
SIR: Wolfgang Holdheim’s response to Christopher Norris (Letters, 17 March) seeks to explain Paul de Man’s views on language and meaning as a guilty reaction to his writing for collaborationist newspapers at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Belgium. The views Holdheim mentions, however – the critique of the assumption that history is a coherent narrative, critique of the author or subject as the determining source of meaning, emphasis on the ambiguities of language and on the rhetorical subversion of existential claims and categories in texts – resemble conclusions reached independently by other thinkers whose historical experience was quite different from de Man’s, such as Jacques Derrida, an Algerian Jew, and Roland Barthes, a Frenchman who spent the war undergoing treatment for tuberculosis in a sanatorium.
When one looks at what is distinctive in de Man’s theorising, one finds, for instance, an account of the interdependency of blindness and insight: his book Bilndness and Insight shows that for a range of thinkers from Husserl and Lukacs to Derrida, their best insights depend on assumptions that those insights disprove (and thus on their blindness). But far from excusing his own youthful blindness, de Man’s account would rather indict it: in his wartime juvenilia, there is no insight made possible by blindness. One might say that his subsequent discovery of his blindness produced insight, but that is quite different, quite explicitly not the structure he discovers in other critics, where insights are made possible by a blindness that the insights expose.
The wartime writings, mostly book reviews produced by a young man of 21 and 22 with no formal literary training, are a very mixed bag. Highly evaluative, with the callowness of a youth enjoying the role of cultural arbiter, they combine a desire to map European literature, a conviction that one can grasp the inexorable laws of literary history, with diverse critical impulses that make him appear, not surprisingly, a young man experimenting with various idées reçues. There are certainly columns one finds objectionable: one of the 169 columns in Le Soir, written early in his employment there for a special anti-semitic section at the insistence of his editor, adopted the language of anti-semitism to argue that European literature had not been corrupted by the Jews but remained fundamentally healthy; other columns of early 1941 praise Germany’s discovery of its identity and its importance for the future of Europe. But another, on Charles Péguy, sketching the intellectual context in which he wrote, affirms the innocence of Dreyfus and praises Péguy’s commitment to the Dreyfusard cause. Yet another celebrates Surrealism as the indispensable basis of modern poetry and especially Paul Eluard, whose Communist affiliations were well-known.
However severely one may wish to condemn the act of collaboration itself, one must recognise that the reviews do not adhere to some party line. The most consistent note, as Christopher Norris had seen, is an organicist language: nations find or fail to find their identity; they have a destiny; literature develops according to its own strict evolutionary laws.
De Man ceased writing for Le Soir in the fall of 1942, when the Nazis extended censorship to the cultural section of the paper, and abandoned critical writing for a decade. For the remainder of the war he worked in publishing (among other things, he arranged for the publication of a volume of Resistance poetry, Exercises du Silence, edited by Georges Lambrichs, that could not be published in France). When he resumed writing about literature, as a graduate student at Harvard, it was to initiate the critique of organicist and narrative figures through which he had sought to master literature for journalistic purposes. Here, then, one can see de Man’s work as in part a reaction against the assumptions of his wartime writing. The organicist figures used to describe language and literature are generated by a misreading of romanticism, whose greatest works, he came to argue, provide the instruments for their undoing. ‘Pseudo-historical period terms such as “romanticism” or “classicism”,’ he later wrote, ‘are always terms of resistance and nostalgia, at the furthest remove from the materiality of actual history.’
Another distinguishing feature of de Man’s writing has been a critique of the aesthetic ideology and his linking of it to violence, as in his essays on Kleist and Schiller. Walter Benjamin called Fascism the introduction of aesthetics into politics, and de Man cites in a late essay, as an example of the most grievous misappropriation of the aesthetic ideology, the comparison, in a novel by Joseph Goebbels, of the Führer to an artist, who shapes the masses as a sculptor shapes stone. De Man’s critique of the aesthetic ideology now resonates also as a critique of the fascist tendencies he had known and their deadly adoption of a language of unity, presence, and the elimination of difference.
The discovery of de Man’s wartime writings will block an inclination to idealise the man and will prevent him from being cited simply as an authority but it also gives a new dimension to de Man’s attempt – from his critiques of Heidegger in the Fifties to his critiques of phenomenality in the Seventies and Eighties – to undo totalising metaphors, myths of immediacy, organic unity, and presence, and combat their fascinations. His later writings offer some of the most powerful tools for combating the ideology with which he had earlier been complicitous.
SIR: In a letter published in your issue of 31 March, Mr Simon Critchley accuses me, by implication, of philosophical insularity. I regret that, in order to rebut this charge, I have to blow my own trumpet, I hope not too loudly. Since the war, I have received and accepted invitations to lecture in 32 foreign countries, 18 of them in Europe. I have lectured frequently in French, occasionally in Spanish and German. If there were such a thing as ‘the Continental tradition’, and its adherents believed that I treated them unfairly, it is unlikely that I should have been elected President of the International Institute of Philosophy. Among the works which I commissioned when I edited Routledge and Kegan Paul’s International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method were English translations of Lucien Goldmann’s Le Dieu Caché and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la Perception. I have been able to count many other foreign Marxists and Phenomenologists among my personal friends. I do, however, admit that I have not so far found anything to admire in what I know of the work of either Jacques Derrida or Martin Heidegger.
Vol. 10 No. 9 · 5 May 1988
SIR: Before reading the responses on your Letters page to Christopher Norris’s balanced and informative piece on Paul de Man, I had idealised England as a country blessedly unlike the United States, where instrumental reason stands in for the life of the mind, where literature departments are staffed by people who agree largely with Sir Philip Sidney on the pabulum value of literary studies (‘food for the tenderest stomachs’), where the historical sense has all the profundity of a television mini-series, where local chauvinism makes everything foreign seem a dangerous microbe to be returned to its origin by a blast of native common sense, and where the halls and coffee rooms of universities resound eternally with ridicule for the ‘Jacques-sniffers’ and ‘uncritical theorists’ whose guilt consists of trying to keep abreast of Continental developments in literature and philosophy during the last ten years. Most people have not made this effort. It was easier not to. Now that there are the articles in Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche La. d, these people declare themselves to have been wise all along, when they were merely lazy or professionally threatened. Their righteousness seems especially suspect when one considers that, as long as one is protective of the right ‘orthodoxy’, one can say, us T.S. Eliot did in 1933 at the University of Virginia, that ‘reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.’ One can have said these things and still be admired in literature departments. One can be enshrined in the Norton Anthology. One can even win the Nobel Prize in 1948. Nor is it any comfort or excuse for socialist bigotry to remember that Karl Marx said more appalling things about Jews than either Eliot or de Man ever did.
What is being celebrated now, prematurely, in the wake of Mr Ortwin de Graef’s researches, is the fall of a man whose presence made a lot of people indirectly, and sometimes directly, uncomfortable. Their present euphoria is healthy neither for their vocation nor for themselves in the long term, mixed as it is with ressentiment, hypocrisy, and their now-triumphant professional inadequacy. What both Norris and Geoffrey Hartman in the New Republic have painstakingly said about the de Man episode will remain as a standard of wisdom and sanity long after de Man’s detractors have drained the reservoirs of their vitriol.
To say, as some have, that de Man’s career was a ‘denial of responsibility’ is certainly incorrect. I can scarcely claim to have known de Man. I was never a member of his Inner Circle. But he corrected me once on the subject of his uncle Hendrik, whose career was used, as early as 1981 (see New Left Review 127:57), to cast a sinister light on de Man’s own. I complained about the unfairness of this procedure and said that, if one considered the historical context and the tragic pressures to which Hendrik de Man was subjected, one would see how utterly facile it is now condemn him from our own safe historical vantage-point. To this de Man replied: ‘He had plenty to be ashamed of, all right.’ I took the comment then, and I take it now, as a warning not to minimise ethical failure because it took place under circumstances which at first sight might seem to excuse it, when the facts, as Derrida says, were not yet a fact. It is a source of pleasure and, to be sure, of some considerable pain that such moments return to memory now heavy with a significance one did not at the time know they had. Those who knew him better than I will know what I mean. There were many such moments.
Vol. 10 No. 10 · 19 May 1988
SIR: Admirable as it is for lucidity and fairness, in contrast to the sensationalistic and malicious articles that have appeared in the American press, Christopher Norris’s ‘Paul de Man’s Past’ (LRB, 4 February) mis-states the argument of de Man’s ‘early and middle-period essays’ of the Fifties and Sixties and mistakes the history of his writing. Though he is right that de Man’s wartime writing takes for granted, and his later writing deconstructs, organicist models of language and culture, the exclusive focus on this single theme in de Man’s texts, to the neglect of its historical context both within and beyond them, confirms Norris in making a basic mistake: a reductive biographical interpretation of de Man’s work. Norris construes all de Man’s post-war writing as an attempt to leave behind his past prior to 1942 – as ‘a prolonged and painful reckoning with his own past errors’. Such a description of Paul de Man’s work stems no doubt from a worthy impulse: the wish to discover, in a man whom one had for good reasons admired, ‘a powerful if belated act of conscience’, in Geoffrey Hartman’s words. But that impulse should not be allowed to stand in the way of a more exact assessment of de Man’s thought, locating it in intellectual history.
Its resources as critique or rather as warning and counter-proposal are far more extensive than Norris suggests, and they are as explicit in the essays of the Fifties as in those of the Eighties. Appealing as it is, the model of a conversion narrative, or the upward curve of ‘evolving’ political wisdom such as Norris would see in de Man’s writings from early to late, unacceptably simplifies and distorts the texts’ content and status. De Man’s post-war writing does not (as Norris suggests) move from an apolitical or anti-political stance in the essays of the Fifties and Sixties to a critical practice akin to radical Ideologiekritik and an implicit commitment to the ‘political’ in the Seventies and Eighties. Rather the critique of models of poetry and history implicated in fascism is there, sharply stated, in the early Fifties as well as later – and in some of the very essays or passages focused on poetry or marked by a ‘Heideggerian thematics’ that Norris takes to be apolitical or blurry. The early essays already indeed, as Norris maintains, function as ideology-critique in their criticism of the European supremacism and organicist models residual in Husserl and Heidegger. But the critique is much more pointed and far-reaching, and extends to the idealist distinction by which Norris (among others) perpetuates the false opposition he erroneously attributes to the early de Man, for whom, he thinks, ‘poetry and politics’ are ‘in some sense antithetical terms’. Far from being the stance of de Man’s early essays, this is the position they differ from and attack, and the attack extends to the inadequate conception guiding Norris’s interpretation here: a conventional distinction between anti-political concern for poetry and political concern for politics. For de Man the split between reflection and action falls within poetry as also within politics, rather than between them. Thus in ‘Wordsworth and Hölderlin’, ‘an excess of interiority’ is judged to be the paramount historical and political peril and error. In de Man’s readings of Hölderlin and Wordsworth, the poetic imagination consists in the doubled action of both ‘Titanism and a turning back’, and is explicitly identified with Rousseau – hardly an apolitical figure.
De Man’s critical thought – his critique of ‘aesthetic ideology’, to borrow the title of a forthcoming volume of essays on Kant, Schiller and Hegel – derives from a historical valuation present in his book reviews of 1941-2, thereafter drastically reinterpreted: the evaluation of Romanticism as the decisive innovation in Western thought and history. The notion of distinctive national cultural identities and the habitual distinction between French clarity and German sense of the infinite, between French classicism and German romanticism, in writing of the Thirties and Forties (not only de Man’s), is embedded in an educational and philosophical tradition dating back to before 1800, when Schiller held out a solution to the problem of imitation that troubled Enlightenment thought, how (not) to (merely) imitate the works of Classical Antiquity. On Naive and Sentimental Poetry proposes that while the Greeks’ nature is the natural, or ‘naive’, ‘our’ nature is cultural, or ‘sentimental’, and has the ultimate value, Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic Education suggest, of enabling us to regain paradise, or nature, as it were from the far side. Such is the ideal of ‘aesthetic education’ and the ‘aesthetic state’ of which de Man observes: ‘despite repeated attempts by commentators, alarmed by its possible implications, to relativise and soften the idea of the aesthetic state (aesthetischer Staat) … the “state” that is here being advocated is not just a state of mind or of soul, but a principle of political value and authority that has its own claims on the shape and limits of our freedom. It would lose all interest if this were not the case. For it is as a political force that the aesthetic still concerns us as one of the most powerful ideological drives to act upon the reality of history’ (‘Aesthetic Formalisation’, 1983). ‘Aesthetic ideology’ appears in Schiller as a conception of the social order as an aesthetic achievement. He writes in 1793: ‘I know of no better image for the ideal of a beautiful society than a well-executed English dance, composed of many complicated figures and turns.’ De Man’s critical analysis of aesthetic ideology targets both the identification of the state with a work of art and the supposition, also Schiller’s, of their separateness: of fixed boundaries between ‘the realm of truth’ and ‘the realm of appearances’, which becomes the assumption of the separateness of Geist and Staat, and the celebration of ‘eternal values’ of art and poetry immune to politics or history, typical of Paul de Man’s own wartime writing in collaborating newspapers – as well as of professors of Germanistik and Classics who took themselves to be upholding a defence of human values against Nazi domination. Such a retreat not simply from politics, but from historical reflection on the relationship between the idea of culture and the idea of the state, such withdrawal into an assertion of the permanent and immediate presence of spiritual values within great works of literature, was characteristic of humanistic literary studies after as well as during the war. As the belief in the redemption or fusion of contradictions through poetic imagination, it remains a dominant assumption in literary criticism in the United States today, described by de Man in ‘The Dead-End of Formalist Criticism’ (1956) as ‘salvational poetics’.
The resource for the swerve in de Man’s own writing on literature and history after the war is the very historical valuation present in his articles from 1941-2, the significance accorded to Romanticism. The decisiveness of the new interpretation of that judgment (not its abandonment), and the exact content of the new interpretation, are plain in the polemical pointedness as well as the unremitting complexity of a lecture de Man delivered at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in 1953, ‘Le Devenir, la Poésie’ (‘Process and Poetry’), where what makes the difference between his earliest and his later writing stands out unmistakably: the reading, with and against Heidegger, of the poetry and the poetic theory of Hölderlin. For de Man’s critique here of ‘poetic eternalism’ leads into a counter-proposal specifically derived from Hölderlin, a reading of modern poetry (here of Mallarmé and Baudelaire) as performing the ‘task of poetic consciousness’ in coming to terms with its historicality, its non-essentiality, the impossibility of being (something single, proper, whole). Hölderlin’s thought has been interpreted, notably by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, as that divergence within speculative idealism in the Romantic period that disqualifies the concept of the aesthetic for assimilation to ‘national aestheticism’, Lacoue-Labarthe’s term for the aesthetic ideology he argues was the essence of Nazism.
Hölderlin radically rethinks the relation between Greece and the Occident posed by Schiller: the Greeks’ most successful achievement (‘clarity’) was what was not ‘native’ to them (‘sacred pathos’); Hölderlin re-defines what is one’s ‘own’ as that which is most difficult to accomplish, which one is least likely to achieve. The notion of a proper national cultural identity is thereby dismantled, and with it the notion of historical process (whether of poetry or society) as an imitation or return, and the possibility of modelling a modern state or culture on an ancient one or on a harmonious aesthetic whole. In his 1953 lecture de Man alludes to the ‘historical symbolism’ by which Hölderlin expresses his conception of the conflictual character of any historical situation or any consciousness – the thesis of de Man’s polemic against eternalist humanism. Hölderlin’s detailed theorisation of his translations of Sophocles that de Man discusses here manifestly inspires his own practice of deconstructive or ‘rhetorical reading’ which this lecture as well as later essays carries out.
The critical power of the resource de Man discovered in Hölderlin’s divergence from Schillerian classicism is measurable in the final chapter of The Rhetoric of Romanticism, ‘Aesthetic Formalisation: Kleist’s “Über das Marionnettentheater” ’. This essay locates the trend toward aestheticist totalitarianism (such as Nazism) in more than the ‘mystifying power of organicist creeds’ evoked by Norris and many analysts of fascism. De Man’s diagnosis (via Kleist’s ironical text) of organicist and authoritarian models of the ‘aesthetic state’ is scathing. But the essay reserves its most intense indictment for the aesthetification of the formal, mechanical aspect of language, the conception of the work – and of the social order or the state – as ‘a system of tropes’, a formal pattern of turns and figures. De Man stresses that Kleist’s text, unlike Schiller’s, reveals such a system as a puppets’ dance.
Like Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s characterisation of Nazism as ‘national aestheticism’, with which it has much in common, de Man’s concept of ‘formalisation’ – the aesthetification, as a satisfying, recognisable form, of the formal, mechanical, arbitrary and contradictory process of language – gets at both aspects of Nazism, the combination of which has puzzled and appalled political analysts: the Nazis’ romantic aestheticism, an ideology of organic form, and at the same time unparalleled total commitment to sheer mechanical technological power.
De Man’s counter-proposal to the conception of the work as a sheerly formal system is that of a reading process in which the formal and the referential aspects of language are continually in conflict and at stake. The emblem or the example of this activity that Kleist counterposes to the Schillerian model of the social dance is a fencing match: continually alternating feints and thrusts, in which the challenge is also that of not degenerating into actual violence. De Man turns from ‘formalisation’ to ‘the question of reading as the necessity to decide between signified and referent, between violence on the stage and violence in the streets’. We have the resource, in such a model, for a non-authoritarian, non-totalitarian, non-aesthetic politics.
Cornell University, New York
SIR: I have followed with great interest the exchange of ideas on Paul de Man and on the fate of ‘Continental philosophy’ in the UK. It seems to me that among the prerequisites for a useful debate is a willingness to take the arguments of one’s opponents at least seriously enough to engage in a discussion: something that seems to be lacking on the analytic side. I know of no work on Derrida, de Man or even Heidegger from a purely analytic perspective, and all the writers who do intend to mediate are non-French Continental philosophers. Two British critics have recently managed to present the Post-Structuralist paradigm in excellent and very readable introductions: one of the chapters in Christopher Norris’s book on Derrida directly addresses the issue of the French philosopher’s reading of the ‘Oxford connection’, and in Logics of Disintegration Peter Dews offers a cogent critique precisely by taking its arguments seriously. Both stress the relevance of the French work in the larger context of European philosophy by playing down the role of Heidegger, whose influence was clearly crucial to the success of deconstruction in the US and, it seems, to the lack of success in the UK.
In the case of Paul de Man, neither the simply dismissive attitude of A.J. Ayer nor the ‘opportunistic polemics’ in Newsweek (in which Jeffrey Mehlman offered the theory that deconstruction is nothing less than ‘a vast amnesty project for the politics of collaboration during World War Two’) is appropriate. The question whether Paul de Man was a collaborator, and if so, to what extent, cannot be answered by literature professors or philosophers, and should be addressed by historians who are aware of the specific conditions in occupied Belgium.
I agree with Wolfgang Holdheim (who is actually much closer to Norris’s analysis than he seems to think): we cannot afford, in present circumstances, to observe a pious silence. Too much is at stake. That is why the Department of Germanic Philology of the University of Antwerp in Wilrijk is organising a Paul de Man conference on 24 and 25 June at which Paul de Man’s Belgian period (he was born in Antwerp) will be discussed by Jean Stengers, a historian and specialist of the war years who studied with de Man at the Free University of Brussels, and by Ortwin de Graef, who originally found the incriminating articles. Other speakers will include Christopher Norris, Rodolphe Gasche, and three generations of students and colleagues of de Man: Cyrus Hamlin (Yale), Stanley Corngold (Princeton), Carol Jacobs (Buffalo) and Anselm Haverkamp (Constance).
University of Antwerp
Vol. 10 No. 11 · 2 June 1988
The business of the unsavoury de Man has been proceeding predictably: smokescreens of lofty irrelevance (Heidegger, Husserl, ‘organicism’) punctuated by hot flushes of polysyllabic panic, complacencies of odium academicum designed to neutralise any idea that the real issue might be something other than Professor Norris’s opinion of ‘English-speaking philosophers’, and so on. The latest number of LRB to reach me (Letters, 21 April) makes me wonder just when Messrs Norris and Culler are going to reveal to us that some of de Man’s best friends were Jews.
Thank you from the depths of my heart for Professor Holdheim’s letter (Letters, 17 March) and his comment on Christopher Norris’s essay on Paul de Man. There must be a vast number who were deeply disturbed, as I was, by the ahistorical view of life and literature that attempted to construct an epistemology without root or stem and wondered what, other than a lack of any creative talent, could be its motivation. The din was so great that few of us could be heard and when a whole generation was sent forth to man the bastions of learning it became impossible to tell the hollow men from the blockheads. I believe that Professor Holdheim has not only given us a ‘close reading’ of the infamous de Man but a critical key that lays bare the unutterable shame that provides the real episteme for much of what passes for social and political thought in modern Europe. What do we see, we inheritors of the worlds of Bacon and Locke and Hume, and what can we learn from the ugly spectacle of the heirs of Kant and Kierkegaard, Hegel and Nietzche tramping in the bloody parades from stalag to gulag and back again? As we gather up the blood-stained pages that Professor Holdheim has revealed to us, perhaps we can discern another and more hopeful vision amid the stench and flickering light emitted by these mines of sulphur. It is the image of Marc Bloch, tortured and shot by the Gestapo with guns that had been loaded by these ‘thinkers’. And I can hear the cry of the American poet and novelist Evan S. Connell shouting across that abyss, far wider than the Channel, to another great historian destroyed in the Warsaw Ghetto: ‘Peace, Dubnow, as long as paper lasts, where can they hide?’
Jonathan Culler’s response (Letters, 21 April) to Wolfgang Holdheim’s letter on Paul de Man rejects the notion that his views are ‘a guilty reaction to his writing for collaborationist newspapers at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Belgium’ and proposes instead that his later writings are valuable ‘for combating the ideology with which he had earlier been complicitous’. Christopher Norris had made the same point. All three writers are engaging in intellectual biography and history, where the issues must be settled, though I think we need to know much more than we do now to advance the narrative. Still, in an age of theorising that has denigrated both history and biography, it is ironic that it is the biographical problem of a leading theorist which has driven his defenders to realms they usually disdain as the province of old-fashioned literary criticism. One must wonder, however, how deconstructionists will be able to do the biographical job they propose to do since they are dedicated in principle, as Culler proclaims, to ‘the critique of the assumption that history is a coherent narrative,’ to ‘critique of the author or subject as the determining source of meaning’. It is precisely the problem of making a coherent narrative and finding the author’s meaning, however, that the historical argument about de Man is all about. Deconstructionists like Norris and Culler are supposed to be especially alert to contradictions in texts, and perhaps they are. But what is most striking about their defence of de Man’s theories is their confident plunge into matters of biography and history which depend upon assumptions that their principles contradict. We shall need to demystify deconstruction if the de Man story is to be constructed. That is a point in Holdheim’s letter that neither Norris nor Culler addresses.
Whatever the coherent narrative turns out to be, making it will not be helped by proclaiming in advance, as Norris and Culler do, that the story will be proof of the wisdom in de Man’s later theorising because it criticises his earlier disastrous assumptions. Maybe that is why he was drawn to his theory; that is a sympathetic and possible biographical hypothesis. But even if true, it proves nothing about the wisdom or folly of deconstruction.
Cornell University, New York
Vol. 10 No. 13 · 7 July 1988
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.
University of Wales, Cardiff
Vol. 10 No. 14 · 4 August 1988
The letter from Juliet Flower MacCannell (Letters, 7 July) seems to me even more obscure in its content than in its motivations. For lack of time, place or interest, I will not discuss it in detail. Here are simply a few factual corrections.
Of course, I never made the remarks attributed to me. During the conference in question, without the least allusion to what J.F. MacCannell calls my ‘own work’, I attempted to analyse the conditions in which myself and others founded the Collège International de Philosophie in 1983. I dare to think that what I had to say about it was a good deal less foolish than the things J.F. MacCannell thought herself competent to reconstruct, without a single verifiable quotation, and to pass along. It is true that the strange document she sent to you depends entirely on such procedures (for example, that unlocalisable 1939 letter from which nothing is quoted and whose addressee is unknown). Nor do I recall that Jonathan Culler at any time ‘called for “elimination of the social sciences” from the University’. He can specify this for himself.
J.F. MacCannell appears to want to rush to the aid of the sciences and the social sciences. She would be more credible if she respected their basic rules and if her eloquence did not exploit the unverifiable. ‘Whom are we to believe?’ she asks in closing. I will answer: not her.
Director of Studies, Ecole des Hautes Etudesen Sciences Sociales, Paris
Your Letters page (Letters, 7 July) has me say of Michael Dummett that at one stage he set aside his work on Frege in order to devote more time ‘to the work of improving and combating the effects of National Front propaganda’. What I actually wrote was ‘devote himself to improving race relations and combating the effects …’
Vol. 10 No. 15 · 1 September 1988
Whatever else one may say about the late Paul de Man, one reason for regretting his passing has come more and more frequently to mind these last few months: alive, he scared some of his colleagues and students into being careful in print. Now it seems that any argument is good. To de Man’s published wartime errors Juliet Flower MacCannell has added (Letters, 7 July) a character-flaw which we are meant to take as extending from his earliest writings (and private letters) to his last: that of not being a very nice man. True, a would-be Olympian tone came easily to the young de Man (as to the young Shelley, the young Marx, the young Adorno et j’en passe), and, also true, up to the end he maintained a wariness toward the social sciences. Contrasting his ‘record’ with those of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Jakobson and some of the Frankfurt School, MacCannell asks: ‘Whom are we to believe?’ The key word is of course believe. It would be an act of misplaced pride to suppose that we readers could work things out for ourselves; and if we were disposed to do so, those who make such a fuss and flurry of enthymemes over de Man’s ethos would have less to thunder about. Nice thought: and only the thunderers would stand to lose anything by it.
New Haven, Connecticut
Juliet Flower MacCannell, reporting that I called for ‘the elimination of the social sciences from the university’, proceeds to praise the virtues of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan and Roman Jakobson. Perhaps she has forgotten, but my complaint was that the social sciences in the United States have increasingly concerned themselves with questions that have quantitative answers. This leads social science departments to neglect, not only the work of the scholars she mentions, but entire traditions of social thought and of the human sciences. Interdisciplinary humanities centres have been created in many American universities to fill the vacuum by addressing questions about language, mind and society that American social science has abandoned. There is, of course, little chance that these social science departments will be eliminated, but on many campuses they consume valuable resources while contributing little to reflection on important issues that have traditionally concerned social theorists and psychologists.
Cornell University, New York
Juliet Flower MacCannell’s letter describes me as claiming, in my letter of 19 May, that ‘Paul de Man never changed,’ and as criticising 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’. I claimed, to the contrary, that de Man’s thinking changed decisively between 1942 and 1953 – that the critique missing in his wartime writing of ‘models of poetry and history implicated in fascism is there, sharply stated, in the early Fifties, as well as later’ – and I criticised Christopher Norris, not for his cogent account of the re-thinking of the roots of fascism in de Man’s essays ‘The Temptation of Permanence’ and ‘Heidegger’s Exegeses of Hölderlin’ (both of 1955), but for his misdescription of other early essays, specifically those on Wordsworth and Hölderlin, as apolitical or anti-political, and for the kind of biographical interpretation that led him to the misreading of those essays (through the reasoning that it would make sense psychologically for de Man at that point to have become cynical about politics). In describing the crucial swerve in de Man’s thinking, my ‘major resource’ was not, as MacCannell writes, ‘a very late text indeed, the talk on “Kant and Schiller” ’, which in fact I did not mention, but rather the important early essay ‘Le Devenir, la Poésie’, where de Man finds, in Hölderlin’s radical re-thinking of Schiller’s notion of the Occident, the resource for his distinctive practice of ‘rhetorical reading’ as a form of ideology critique. Many of de Man’s essays from different periods have a great deal to say about social and political life, but they have to be read attentively.
Cornell University, New York
Vol. 10 No. 16 · 15 September 1988
I have provided you separately with photocopies of the documents I cited in my letter of 7 June to which Professor Derrida (Letters, 4 August) has taken exception. The first, re the 1939 de Man letter, appears as an extract provided by the diligent Belgian researcher Ortwin de Graef (‘Aspects of the Context of Paul de Man’s Earliest Publications’) and appended to the copies of the hundred and seventy articles de Man wrote for Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land that Mr de Graef furnished. The question of its authenticity should ultimately be addressed to him. The quotation reads: Intéressez-vous d’avantage aux hommes, me dîtes vous. Comment donc, si je m’y intéresse; ils me passionnent, mais uniquement aussi longtemps que je reste détaché, non lié, non polarisé.
The second, the Culler citation, appears in a paper he wrote for the Irvine conference, ‘Humanities Centres and the Reconfiguration of Knowledge’. The full citation is on pages 4-5: ‘A major goal of the humanities, it seems to me, ought to be the elimination of the social sciences, which consume valuable resources to little purpose.’ He goes on to state that the ‘more interesting aspects of social thought’ have been ‘taken over’ by ‘people working in humanities departments’, which may or may not be the case: the eliminees might wish to participate in that judgment. It also leaves the status of that ‘social thought’ – my real question – an open issue.
Finally, Professor Derrida’s comments were tape-recorded and hopefully could be reconstructed competently. I was aware that they referred to his role in constituting the fine institution that the Collège is; I was not aware that he made a sharp distinction between that activity and his writing and thought.
In the end, I found Professor Derrida’s last sentence obscure, and have discovered three ways to read it. The first, intoned as ‘I will answer, not her,’ has him taking the task of answering the question out of my incompetent hands. The second, intoned ‘I will answer: not her,’ has him saying that he will come forth and respond but will not address the response to me, the direct object of the verb. The third, which is presumably what he expected to mean, ‘I will answer: not her,’ is that we cannot believe ‘J.F. MacCannell’.
Juliet Flower MacCannell
University of California, Irvine