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.

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