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The Strange Case of Paul de Man

On the “higher” level, where the common writ does not run, de Man developed a theory of language and a practice of reading which had as their effect, and I have no doubt their aim, the subversion of every sentiment or prejudice that had made a mess of his early life in Belgium. His model was perhaps Nietzsche, who urged, in “On the Use and Abuse of History,” that we seek “a past from which we may spring, rather than that past from which we seem to have derived.” Under whatever auspices, de Man seems to have spent the rest of his life dismantling virtually every sentiment, axiom, or affinity which as a young man he had harbored. In the United States, he made himself a new life by devising a theory in its favor. Besides Nietzsche, he had several models: Keats, whose last poems de Man construed as “an attack on much that had been held sacred in the earlier work.” The negativity of Keats’s last poems showed, according to de Man, “that he was about to add another dimension to a poetic development that, up till then, had not been altogether genuine.” Yeats, too: de Man referred to his “savagely derisive treatment of his own myths in some of the Last Poems.”

In de Man’s later work, on the second or higher level of intellectual activity, the enemies are legion. He rarely attacked them directly, preferring to come upon them indirectly with the aid of Rousseau, Wordsworth, Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Derrida. What was common to the enemies in their sinister fellowship was the desire for unity of experience, the conviction of being at home to themselves and to the world. To the extent, enormous indeed, that this vulgar inclination was entertained in language, as a conspiracy among words, de Man disclosed its speciousness. But in the context of his wartime journalism we see that the first body of sentiment and prejudice that de Man repudiates is “aesthetic ideology,” as he called it in later essays; he attacked as sharing this sentiment insidious notions that apparently arose from his early sense, expressed in the Le Soir writings, of a race as an organism, a natural object, having its own rhythm.

It is easy enough, as fascist theorists showed, to move between this sentiment—the race as an organism—and the apparently contradictory notion of the state as a work of art. There need be no contradiction. The aesthetic sense, so the argument runs, is gratified, especially in contemplating a work of sculpture, where an otherwise ordinary piece of natural material—wood, clay, stone—seems to have found its fulfillment through the artist’s hands. Similarly, when a race becomes a nation or a state, it passes to its higher, destined form and proceeds autonomously, like an organism: common considerations do not apply to its activities.

The analogy of the state as a work of art, inspiring devotion in those who find themselves fulfilled in its form, comes under constant attack in de Man’s later writings, especially when he finds it associated with the idea, often ascribed to the American New Criticism, that a work of art transcends history “because it encompasses the totality of its tensions within itself.” In de Man’s later essays, the word “aesthetic” is always used in a tone of rebuke and distaste, but it is the political force of aesthetic considerations that de Man most fiercely attacked. The aesthetic is, by definition, “a seductive notion,” he says in The Resistance to Theory, because it appeals to the pleasure principle and therefore displaces “values of truth and falsehood.”

In The Rhetoric of Romanticism, he refers to Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind, where the dance is declared to be the most satisfactory image of a good society, since it exhibits the harmonious unity of apparently diverse forces. De Man then insists that the model is a gross delusion. Appealing to Kleist’s Marionettentheater, he undertakes to show that such a model is applicable only to puppets or to gods. “Whenever the aesthetic is invoked as an appeal to clarity and control,” de Man writes in The Resistance to Theory, we would do well to suspect that political authority and violence are at work:

The aesthetic, as is clear from Schiller’s formulation, is primarily a social and political model, ethically grounded in an assumedly Kantian notion of freedom…. 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 the limits of our freedom…. 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.

The particular felicity offered by aesthetic ideology, according to the later de Man, who is clearly repudiating his early self, is that of the conviction of permanence, the transcendence of mere becoming. In an essay on Heidegger, he warns “against the possibility of letting oneself be seduced by promises of permanence…which can support the mind in a state of beatitude that properly speaking is a lethargy.” In an essay on Hölderlin, de Man rejects the idea of kinship between races and forms, or any attempt to claim for works of art, as Heidegger sometimes did, access to Being:

Hölderlin tells us precisely the opposite: what is easiest is to give in to the call of the object and the eternal, whereas what is required for us to be ourselves is to accept the death of things and to turn back toward the process of becoming, which we have in fact not yet begun to think.

We can now, I hope, characterize the two levels on which de Man lived and wrote. On the first, one does what one can, getting by with the normal stratagems; immersed in the good-and-bad schemes of survival. On the second, ostensibly higher, level, one lives by scruples that one cannot afford to apply elsewhere, scruples that render void the flagrant practices of mystification and bewilderment, all the deadlier for being one’s own. But they can’t be left as merely one’s own: they must be shown to be universal, since in this light we are all involved in a catastrophe called life. Language, which some deluded people think might save us, throws us, de Man believed, into an ever deeper mess because it fosters our complacency and sentimentality. The only thing we can do with language is to undo it, or—as in Rousseau and a few other writers—show it in the process of undoing itself.

Does de Man’s recourse to this second level amount to a confession, however oblique or occult? Certainly it was not a public confession. Some people, including some of de Man’s friends, think that he should have confessed his early fault or crime, whatever he might have chosen to call it. But a confession would necessarily have been made on the same level of existence as that on which the crimes were committed: the level of inauthenticity, if I am right in my reading of de Man. On that level, he didn’t confess. Instead, he transferred his mind to the indisputably laborious and demanding level on which he conducted the later years of his life as a writer and theorist.

There is perhaps an essay that never got written, one in which de Man deconstructed not Heidegger, Husserl, Schiller, Yeats, Mallarmé, or Derrida, but himself, his own early writings. He could have written it with impunity any time from about 1960, when he was secure in his profession and untouchably famous. Let me give an example not of what he might have said—how could I guess?—but of a sentence he might have applied his later mind to. In Le Soir (November 11, 1941) he quoted this passage from Montherlant, evidently with full approval:

For the writers who, in the last few months, have given too much to current affairs, I predict, for that part of their work, the most complete oblivion. When I open the newspapers and journals of today, I hear the indifference of the future rolling over them, just as one hears the sound of the sea when one holds certain seashells up to the ear.

De Man added in 1941: “One could not have put it any better.” In fact, one could not have put it any worse. It is an example, repellently shared between Montherlant and de Man, of a spiritually pretentious Pétainism. The author of Blindness and Insight, Allegories of Reading, The Resistance to Theory, and his other mature writings would have spotted at once, what the young de Man failed to detect, that Montherlant’s rhetoric is hollow, his appeal to nature to mock the actions of men and women in particular situations is a fraud. It is impertinent to say that the future will be indifferent to what these particular people did or failed to do. One doesn’t need to be a Deconstructionist to see that the young de Man aligned himself, on that occasion, with a shoddy rhetoric defending monstrous political forces.

The only way in which we can answer injustice with justice, in relation to de Man, is by reading his entire work. It now seems to me far less monolithic than I once thought it: there are faults, hairline fractures, in his own apparently implacable surface. For instance, in this passage from The Rhetoric of Romanticism:

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. Poetic language can do nothing but originate anew over and over again; it is always constitutive, able to posit regardless of presence but, by the same token, unable to give a foundation to what it posits except as an intent of consciousness.

I associate this passage with de Man’s commentary, in The Rhetoric of Romanticism, on a line from Hölderlin’s poem “Brot und Wein” about words growing as naturally as flowers. De Man takes Hölderlin’s line as issuing from “a nostalgia for the natural object, expanding to become nostalgia for the origin of this object.” But such nostalgia is a mere notion, a mood among moods. I cannot recall ever thinking that a poem and a daffodil come into the same mode of existence, or thinking that I wished they did or would again. Here as elsewhere, de Man’s revulsion against any suggestion of unity leads him to denounce as dangerous writing that menaces nothing at all.

In the passage I’ve quoted, there is no evidence that anyone, with the possible exception of Husserl, has ever wanted language to achieve “the absolute identity with itself that exists in the natural object.” It is enough, for most readers, that poetic language is capable of coming into being over and over again: if it is always constitutive, always “positing,” always summoning an absent thing as if it were not irrevocably absent, I can’t see in that activity any appalling fault. Finally, if language can’t give a foundation to what it takes to be real except as an expression of intent, I am willing to settle for that exception, and to thank God for it as one of His many gifts to us.

There is an obvious question I haven’t asked: What would de Man’s form of Deconstruction entail, if a reader were to observe it to the letter, for a life in ordinary society, if such a life were conceivable? If nothing especially heinous had to be suppressed and the two levels of de Man’s existence, as I have posited them, were to be allowed to be unified or at least to bear upon each other without being rigorously kept apart, what would follow?

I’m not sure that I can answer these questions. I have never been persuaded by the theory or the practice of Deconstruction as a method of reading: it seems to me an example of “going far to seek disquietude.” Deconstruction is the Pyrrhic victory of Angst over bourgeois liberalism. In de Man’s case this victory took an especially personal form, that of unhappy, conscientious residence in an impasse he devised for himself in literary theory. The fact that he extended the hospitality of the impasse to others indicates that he saw no reason to keep discomfort to himself. There is always enough anxiety to go around. Those who accept de Man’s hospitality seem to feel that they live upon inevitable but somehow invigorating failure. They have the gratification of exerting power, futile only in the end, over every book they read.

Most of de Man’s close readings seem to me strained. I do not believe that the naive or mystified reader whom de Man takes for granted exists, except as a straw man for his rhetorical purposes. One doesn’t have to be a Deconstructionist to take reasonable precautions, as in social and political life, against being bamboozled by rhetorical devices.

At best, Deconstruction may impose delay in one’s acceptance of apparent meanings, and make one more scrupulous than one would otherwise be. In many respects it is like a metaphysical conceit, an obliquity by which we are forced to question how we see things when we think we see them straight. I can imagine how one might think deconstructively, at least on certain strenuous occasions, as I have tried to in dealing with some of de Man’s claims; but I can’t see how one could keep it up: on election day, one has to vote, putting further scruples aside.

But it would answer injustice with injustice if one were to assert that Deconstruction is compromised by de Man’s wartime journalism. The current attempt to smear Deconstruction by denouncing de Man is sordid. He didn’t invent Deconstruction: his version of it differs in many important respects from Heidegger’s and from Derrida’s; it is best understood as a moment in the history of skepticism, when irony refuses the unity it seems to contemplate. The particular relation I see between de Man’s early journalism and his later writings is one of repudiation. He repudiated, on the second or “higher” level, the grubby concatenation of prejudices which as a young man he had taken for his convictions.

Letters

Deconstruction, the Nazis, & Paul De Man October 12, 1989

The Higher Criticism September 28, 1989

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