Nothing but the Worst

Michael Wood

  • The Paul de Man Notebooks edited by Martin McQuillan
    Edinburgh, 357 pp, £80.00, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 7486 4104 8
  • The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish
    Norton, 534 pp, £25.00, September 2014, ISBN 978 0 87140 326 1

‘How often in my life have I said those words, and yet?’

John Banville, Shroud

‘I had jumped,’ Conrad’s Jim says of his abandonment of his ship, adding a moment later: ‘It seems.’ Marlow, the narrator of the novel who is listening to Jim’s story, says: ‘Looks like it.’ This is one of many instances where Marlow’s language is drier and tougher than his thought, which is unwilling to condone Jim’s act but very sympathetic to the difficulty of living with the memory of it. ‘And in what was I better than the rest of us,’ he says, ‘to refuse him my pity?’ But he does refuse it in words, again and again. A little later Jim claims: ‘There was not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and the wrong of this affair.’ Marlow murmurs: ‘How much more did you want?’

Jim can’t forget his guilt and can’t face it either, and Marlow arrives at a philosophical conclusion: ‘The truth seems to be that it is impossible to lay the ghost of a fact.’ Marlow can’t have known that he was sketching a theory of deconstruction as it was later elaborated by Paul de Man, and he was certainly hesitant enough about his proposition. But de Man’s suggestion, in Allegories of Reading, that ‘excuses not only accuse but they carry out the verdict implicit in their accusation’ is surely a version of Marlow’s thought. The more we pretend the ghost is gone or not really a ghost at all, the more insistent the haunting gets. We can see it in Jim’s language. Not ‘I jumped’ but ‘I had jumped.’ Even in narration he avoids the moment, and the ghost sneaks into something as simple as a change of tense.

But then de Man seems to contradict himself. ‘Excuses generate the very guilt they exonerate, though always in excess or by default … any guilt … can always be dismissed as the gratuitous product of a textual grammar or a radical fiction: there can never be enough guilt around to match the text-machine’s infinite power to excuse.’ Always? Any guilt? Never? The text-machine is the ghost’s busy attendance on us; the fact becomes whatever the ghost says it is. There is a bit of confusion here but not necessarily a contradiction. The argument that excuses are accusations appears to be de Man’s own, a version of Paul Valéry’s dictum that to confess is to lie. The argument that excuses generate guilt seems to be de Man’s voicing of Rousseau’s writing practice – he is talking about the Confessions. All excuses accuse, but a crafty confessor will allow them to proliferate so that even real guilt becomes improbable because there is too much of it.

But what do we make of the passage that leads to the first, stronger claim about excuses? The claim turns out to be only half the story.

It is always 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. The indecision makes it possible to excuse the bleakest of crimes because, as a fiction, it escapes from the constraints of guilt and innocence. On the other hand, it makes it equally possible to accuse fiction-making … of being the most cruel [of activities] … Excuses not only accuse but …

Something very strange is happening here. A lucid, impersonal account of one of the relations between language and reality, or between ghost and fact, slips into a dubious proposition about what is ‘never possible’. It’s true that we can always pretend the ghost doesn’t exist – that’s why it’s only a ghost – and true too that the ghost is always likely to come back and make more virulent accusations. But how could it be impossible to decide which is happening at any given time? We can make excuses for the bleakest of crimes, which is perhaps what de Man means, but we can’t simply excuse it, even in fiction.

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