Slow Deconstruction

David Bromwich

  • Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminars and Other Papers by Paul de Man, edited by E.S. Burt, Kevin Newmark and Andrzej Warminski
    Johns Hopkins, 212 pp, £21.50, March 1993, ISBN 0 8018 4461 4
  • Serenity in Crisis: A Preface to Paul de Man 1939-1960 by Ortwin de Graef
    Nebraska, 240 pp, £29.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 8032 1694 7

The guru differs from the sage in point of approachability. To experience the sage, you must have read his work; the meeting may come later, and may disappoint. With the guru, personal contact matters most and the first encounter must succeed; the writing need only offer a clue to the presence. Paul de Man said enough memorable things to be quoted like scripture by the susceptible, and one of the things he said was about quotation: Citer, c’est penser. It is fair to conclude that in his last years he was a guru. The effects can be felt in his writing. But he kept talking to those outside the inner circle, as many in such a position do not; and his long career of teaching (at Harvard, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Yale) has a satisfying continuity. If his deepest admirers included a few more who did not know him in the classroom, he might qualify as a hermetic late instance of the Continental sage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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