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Nihilism

In response to:

Whatever Happened to Andre Gide? from the May 6, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

Paul deMan has either read Gide not very intelligently or not very much. His article gets under way, rather limpingly, with two errors of fact.

In his first paragraph deMan states “None of these changes (referring to changes in Gide’s political viewpoint) was ever justified objectively: his Return From the USSR“…certainly failed to show any striking insight into political realities.” If the words “striking insight” have the same meaning for Mr. deMan as for other users of the English language, I am surprised that he would not apply them to the political acumen of a man who on a brief visit to a vast country could become aware of as skillfully concealed a political reality as Stalinism was at that time.

Even more unfortunate is the association of Mallarmé, Wilde and Nietzsche with “the more extreme forms of fin-de-siècle nihilism.” The statement contains so many errors, reveals so much ignorance that one can only wonder what course in World Ideas, suitably vulgarized for the American public, Mr. de Man has acquired in his culture. Nihilism, a politico-philosophical trend in nineteenth-century Russia, was characterized by its total rejection of society as established at that time. It was primarily and actively political and might be thought of, suitably vulgarized, as a kind of pessimistic anarchism. Since the nihilists violently rejected every aspect of organized society, a clue to what Mr. deMan ought to have written might be found in considering some specific aspect of their time which was also rejected by our two writers and philosopher. Probably the aspect that he had in mind was the morality of mid-nineteenth century society. Of course this labeling “nihilist” one who has rejected some element of the mores of his age is going to enormously extend the use of the term, until in fact, it includes many of the better known thinkers since the beginning of time…

Mr. de Man does not like Gide. It is hard to respond to a writer you do not like, yet in literature this response alone leads to understanding. A more astute reviewer would have tried to conceal his disadvantage. Mr. de Man glories in his. For, after all, Gide was a subversive (word repeatedly used by your reviewer with reference to Gide). It is true that Gide was a subversive. He consistently undermined established patterns of thought and indeed he belonged to that great band of subversives which stretches back through the ages and which others call thinkers. It is also true that these thinkers are the natural enemies of Mr. deMan’s kind and that to this extent Mr. deMan has the right to criticize them…

Michael P. Scott

Canton, New York

Paul deMan replies:

I had assumed that the term “nihilism,” especially when qualified as “fin de siècle” nihilism, could not possibly be confused with political anarchism. The use of the lable “nihilism” to designate the combination of aestheticism with pseudo-apocalyptic world-weariness at the end of the nineteenth century is a commonplace of intellectual history. Yeats, who at that time would paraphrase Nietzsche’s “God is dead” in such statements as “Where there is nothing, there is God,” gives an engagingly ironic account of this state of mind in his Autobiographies, a book in which Wilde plays an important part and which borrows one of its subtitles—“The Trembling of the Veil”—from Mallarmé by way of Arthur Symons. The combination Nietzsche-Wilde-Mallarmé, incongruous as it is, recurs frequently in English aestheticism and it is amusing and symptomatic to find it back in the early Gide, Mr. Scott, however, was clearly not amused. I should have known better than to use “nihilism,” a term which, for rather obscure reasons, has a tendency to bring out the worst in those who encounter it, even in the most innocent of contexts.

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