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The Strange Case of Paul de Man

Wartime Journalism: 1939–1943

by Paul de Man, edited by Werner Hamacher, by Neil Hertz, by Thomas Keenan
University of Nebraska Press, 399 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Critical Writings: 1953–1978

by Paul de Man, edited and with an introduction by Lindsay Waters
University of Minnesota Press, 246 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Reading de Man Reading

edited by Lindsay Waters, edited by Wlad Godzich
University of Minnesota Press, 312 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Paul de Man was born in Antwerp on December 6, 1919, second son of Robert and Magdalena de Man. They were a comfortable, upper-middle-class family. Robert was a manufacturer of medical instruments, and especially of X-ray machines. So far as we know, Paul’s childhood and adolescent years were fairly placid until June 20, 1936, when his brother Hendrik was killed in an accident. On the anniversary of his death, a year later, Magdalena hanged herself. In October 1937 Paul enrolled in the Ecole Polytechnique at the Université Libre de Bruxelles as a student of engineering. In 1938 he switched to chemistry. But his main interests were in philosophy, politics, and literature.

In the spring of 1939 he started writing articles for Jeudi, a left-liberal student newspaper. When the war broke out, he wrote in favor of Belgian neutrality, a policy nullified when the Germans invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940. De Man and his wife Anaïde fled the country, making their way by train to Bagnères de Luchon in the French Pyrenees, where they spent the summer waiting for permission to cross the border into Spain. Refused permission, they went back to Brussels in August, presumably because they had nothing better to do and Paul had heard that the German forces occupying Belgium were behaving themselves decently.

Besides, he may have been acting on the advice of his uncle, Henri de Man, an influential socialist politician in Belgium who persuaded himself that a German victory in the war would offer new opportunities for socialism and a new order in Europe. Henri de Man advised King Leopold to surrender the Belgian army to the Germans unconditionally, and he urged Belgians to collaborate with the new regime. “For the working classes and for Socialism,” he wrote on June 28, 1940, “this collapse of a decrepit world, far from being a disaster, is a deliverance.”

It was probably Henri de Man who arranged for Paul to write for Le Soir, a Belgian evening newspaper under German control. He began contributing to it on December 24, 1940, and continued until November 28–29, 1942. Beginning on March 29–30, 1942, he also wrote for Het Vlaamsche Land, a small Flemish-language newspaper sponsored by the German authorities; and, from February 1942, for Bibliographie Dechenne, a publication evidently designed to show that civilized intellectual life was thriving under the Occupation. His writings ceased, for whatever reason, in March 1943. In December he and his wife took their family to his father’s house in Antwerp, where they lived, so far as we know, until the end of the war. On September 4, 1944, two days after the liberation of Antwerp, a student socialist magazine in Brussels denounced de Man for having collaborated with the Germans, but in May 1945, after an examination by the Auditeur Général in Antwerp, he was released without charge.

De Man lived out the last years of the war, it appears, doing odd jobs of translation and editing. In the summer of 1947 he spent two months in the US trying to arrange for the distribution of illustrated art books, the work of Editions Hermès, a short-lived publishing firm. In New York he met various editors, art critics, and writers, including Mary McCarthy, who helped him to get a job at Bard College, teaching French. Thereafter, except for a few years in Zurich, he made his career in the United States, teaching in Boston and later at Harvard, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Yale. In his last years he became one of the most formidable literary theorists in America, a remarkably forceful teacher, and an indelible presence in the lives of his many pupils and colleagues. He published many essays but only two books, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1971) and Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (1979). He died of cancer in December 1983. Since his death, several further collections of his essays have appeared: The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984), The Resistance to Theory (1986), and now the books under review. At least two further collections have been promised, one of them to be called Aesthetic Ideology.


In the summer of 1987 Ortwin de Graef, a graduate student working at the Catholic University of Louvain and researching for a doctoral dissertation on Paul de Man, came upon the articles and reviews which de Man had published in Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land between 1940 and 1943. The discovery of these articles, as reported on the front page of The New York Times and carried further by many news magazines in the United States and Europe, has resulted in the expression of divergent emotions: consternation among de Man’s friends, and something like satisfaction among his enemies. The consternation is sufficiently explained by the fact that Paul de Man was revered, indeed venerated, by his associates. It was widely felt, especially during his last years, that de Man’s essays were so difficult, so ascetic in their refusal to take pleasure in literature, as to seem a mark of personal sanctity. The satisfaction is harder to explain: it has been expressed by critics who, during de Man’s lifetime, were not noted for their attacks on the theory of reading that he put into practice.

De Man’s wartime articles, and the few Jeudi articles of 1939, are reprinted as Wartime Journalism in photocopies hard but not impossible to read. The Flemish pieces are translated into English, the French ones not. In Responses, thirty-eight critics have commented, some at arduous length, on various aspects of these writings, concentrating upon two essays of an anti-Semitic character. Some critics have dealt with the wartime writings as a whole, trying to explain them or explain them away. Others have declared de Man guilty not only of a fairly commonplace anti-Semitism but of publishing his prejudicial views at a time when he knew that Jews were suffering gross and hideous persecution. Jacques Derrida, in one of the longest essays, tries to write the episode to a standstill by practising a rhetoric of “on the one hand…and yet on the other.” Both volumes were conceived of as an attempt to provide a forum for comment, whether friendly or hostile, on the articles in question.

The essays in Reading de Man Reading were written, except for one by Geoffrey Hartman, before de Man’s wartime journalism was discovered: they are examples of work-in-progress in the steps of their master. Critical Writings: 1953–1978 is a gathering of de Man’s occasional writings, several of which were first published in The New York Review: they show, by the way, that he could write just as lucidly as the next critic, when he chose to. I do not imply that when his style was obscure the opacity is sufficiently explained by his having something to hide: the themes in hand were often intractable.

The essays in Responses turn upon two main questions. The first is: Are de Man’s wartime writings reprehensible as a whole or only in certain aberrant parts? Can they be explained on any grounds, even if not condoned, and somehow eased out of our minds so that we may proceed to read de Man’s entire work and learn from it? Or must they remain to disfigure him? The second question is: If we have to find the wartime writings, or some of them, unpardonable, must we also find that they reflect badly, perhaps disablingly, upon the theory of reading that he practised in his mature work? Has his early behavior lethally compromised his later theory?

It seems clear that in 1939 Paul de Man was a brash young student; intellectually precocious, his head swollen with notions, sentiments, and prejudices that a German victory might have seemed to confirm. He collaborated with the Germans from the first day on which he wrote for Le Soir: what he wrote is secondary to the fact that he wrote there at all. He knew that Le Soir had been appropriated by the Germans and used to give Belgian readers a reassuring image of normality. De Man supported the Occupation by saying that there was no need to resist it: daily life would continue, he implied, free of intimidation. Several times, and as late as March 29, 1942, he referred to the war as “the contemporary revolution,” and he maintained that “the necessity of action which is present in the form of immediate collaboration is obvious to every objective mind.”

Week by week, de Man wrote as if the literature currently deemed acceptable by the German regime in Belgium and France provided an entirely adequate setting for intellectual life. In his columns, he promoted, by reviewing, several writers who were named for favorable mention by Bernhard Payr, the German propaganda officer in charge of French cultural affairs: the list includes, as Alice Yaeger Kaplan notes in Responses, Alfred Fabre-Luce, Sieberg, Chardonne, and Benoist-Méchin. De Man evidently thought, from 1940 to late 1942, that the war was over, Germany had won. There was no point in waiting to see: “L’attentisme est donc condamné,” he paraphrased Fabre-Luce with approval as saying, “non d’un point de vue moral, mais de celui de l’impérieuse réalité.” The force of events was irresistible, de Man added, “aux nécessités inscrites dans les faits.” Besides, it was the historic destiny of Germany to exercise hegemony in Europe. Hitler and Germany were one and the same:

The War will only have united more closely the two things that were linked from the start, the Hitlerian soul and the German soul, and it will do so to the point of creating a single unique power.

There would now be a new Europe, led by Germany with Mussolini’s Italy in faithful attendance. France, Belgium, Flanders, and other peoples would play their destined roles: “The present war, besides being an economic and national conflict, is the beginning of a revolution that aims at a more equitable organization of European society.” None of the European nations would be required to give up its identity: in each case, the spirit of the nation would be clarified and would embody itself in social organization as in art and literature.

Two of de Man’s articles are overtly anti-Semitic. One of them strikes Jews a glancing blow, but the other is a direct assault. In “Les Juifs dans la littérature actuelle” (Le Soir, March 4, 1941) de Man undertakes to elucidate “l’esprit juif,” refers to the “cerebral character” of Jews, and to their “capacity to assimilate doctrines while maintaining a certain coldness in the face of them.” Besides, he asserts, Jewish writers are second-rate, and fortunately they have not succeeded in contaminating a fundamentally healthy civilization:

If our civilization had let itself be invaded by a foreign force, then we would have to give up much hope for its future. By maintaining an originality and a character intact, in spite of semitic interference in all aspects of European life, it has shown that its basic nature is healthy. What is more, one sees that a solution to the Jewish problem which would envisage the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not entail deplorable consequences for the literary life of the West. The latter would lose, in all, a few personalities of mediocre value, and it would continue, as in the past, to develop according to its great evolutionary laws [selon ses grandes lois évolutives].

None of the contributors to Responses can take the venom out of that passage. By comparison with many other instances of anti-Semitism in European writers in the Thirties and Forties, it is mild, but there is little merit in measuring degrees of malice. Nor is this article the only wounding one: seventeen months later, de Man published much the same view, though in milder terms. Faced with these articles, Derrida tries to express and to relieve his distress by saying that “one must have the courage to answer injustice with justice,” i.e., justice to de Man. He finds some comfort in the fact that de Man starts the more offensive article by mocking “vulgar anti-Semitism” (“L’anti-sémitisme vulgaire…“), meaning Céline, I think. But Derrida’s attempt here seems to me hopeless. By deriding vulgar anti-Semitism, de Man is merely laying claim to a high-minded form of the sentiment, according to which Jews are of little significance in any consideration: he is not disavowing the prejudice.

Derrida quotes from Henri de Man’s Au delà du marxisme (1926) a distinction between “pure Marxism” and “vulgar Marxism,” the former a “dead truth,” the latter “a living error.” “I despise all forms of vulgarization,” Henri de Man says, “of truth put within reach of those who prefer ersatz goods, radio and phonograph music, champagne for democratic banquets.” But this doesn’t help, it merely shows that a distinction between ostensibly high-minded and obviously low-minded forms of an ideology was in Paul de Man’s vicinity.

In fact, none of Paul de Man’s wartime sentiments was original. The article (Le Soir, January 20, 1942) in which he ridiculed the French writers who dreamed of saving man before saving the world (“qui, tous, se preoccupent de sauver l’homme avant de sauver le monde“) could be compared with many sentiments of the day that fostered collective salvation (“des réalisations collectives“) at whatever cost to particular persons. The only notable feature of de Man’s articles is their self-confident, unrueful tone, as of a young man who believes that history has chosen him to speak its truth.

One can only speculate why de Man stopped writing in March 1943. He later claimed that the Germans were turning the screw on free speech. But he may also have decided, after the entry of the United States into the war, the surrender of the German army at Stalingrad on February 2, and the successes of the British army in North Africa, that he had misread the future: Germany wasn’t going to win, after all.

Responses gives many of the arguments on both sides of the dispute. The most vigorous adepts of denunciation are John Brenkman, Stanley Corngold, and Jeffrey Mehlman: what they have to say may be added to indictments voiced elsewhere; by Frank Lentriccia, for instance, who has been quoted as saying that de Man’s theory of reading is a stratagem for dissolving historical evidence and nullifying its moral consequence; by Tzvetan Todorov, who has maintained (Times Literary Supplement, June 17–23, 1988) that “there is no real discontinuity between the antisemitism and pro-Hitlerism professed by de Man during his youth and his ideological options”; and by Jon Wiener, who has referred to de Man (The Nation, January 9, 1988) as “something of an academic Waldheim.”

These writers speak for themselves; my paraphrases would be misleading. But the case for the prosecution, roughly summarized, is that de Man was from the start of the war a willing collaborator. His opponents also argue that the theory of reading which he practiced in his later years was an elaborate alibi, a device to evade personal responsibility by undermining the very terms in which moral responsibility may be incurred and denoted. I am surprised that Samuel Beckett has not yet been mentioned in the debate—a writer whose work in the French Resistance, for which he was later awarded a medal, testifies to a quite different way of responding to the war.

It would be equally misleading to attempt a paraphrase of the defense. Some critics, notably J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman, bear witness that in many years of friendship they never saw the slightest sign of anti-Semitism in de Man. Miller also claims that de Man’s wartime writings, however jejeune and deplorable in their anti-Semitic character, are the folly of a young man, and that they have nothing to do with his mature work. Derrida makes much of Henri de Man’s influence upon his nephew, but neither Derrida nor anyone else has provided strong evidence that Henri de Man had much influence after Paul went to work for Le Soir in December 1940.

I have spoken of this episode as if it were a case in law. In a sense it is, even though the defendant is dead and can’t speak for himself. Derrida and other critics have asked that the matter should not be discussed as a case of crime and punishment. It would be agreeable if someone could propose an alternative to the idiom of prosecution and defense, but I can’t see how this is possible.


The second question raised in Responses is clearly the more tendentious one: Is de Man’s wartime writing continuous with the form of Deconstruction he practiced in his later work, or irrelevant to it?

When we think of de Man, we think of Deconstruction, but it is not self-evident that we should. Now that we have his entire work, collected and uncollected, at hand, we see that he was in many respects a man of his time. He lived through the heyday of phenomenology, existentialism, the disputes between Sartre and Camus, the rise of French Structuralism, and the questioning of Structuralism that led to post-Structuralism and Deconstruction. He did not arrive at Deconstruction as by one leap from Brussels. Traces of postwar sentiment, enthusiasm, disillusionment characteristic of the period can be found in his essays. If there is a crucial turning point in his intellectual career—as I think there is—it comes with his reading of Heidegger; or rather, with his reading of Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin. If we need a date, I would settle for 1954, although de Man had by then read Heidegger’s Being and Time and Letter on Humanism.*

When de Man met Derrida, at a colloquium at Johns Hopkins in 1966, the turn toward Deconstruction, a philology that takes linguistic failure for granted, had already been taken. But it was important for de Man to find that he and Derrida were thinking about Rousseau in ways similar as well as different. Derrida and de Man now seem different more than alike; Derrida is far more playful than de Man, though equally serious in and beyond his play with words.

It is true, in any event, that de Man’s final position was that of Deconstruction; final if only because he did not live long enough to do more than practice it; how he might have gone beyond it, we will not know. Some of the constituents of his Deconstruction were already commonplaces in Structuralism: the removal of the personal subject—call it consciousness—from the center to the periphery of experience; or rather from the center, where it is invoked as will or voice, to the periphery, where it is a mere function or consequence of the linguistic codes it is deluded enough to think it commands.

So far as Structuralism is an attack on the axioms of bourgeois liberalism, especially upon liberalism’s complacent gratification in the possession of a self, identity, will, spontaneity, the authentic power of choice—so far, it makes common cause with Deconstruction. But Deconstruction, both in Derrida’s version and in de Man’s, attacks Structuralism for harboring a suppressed nostalgia. Whether in the version of Saussure, or Roman Jakobson, or Barthes, the claims of Structuralists to find largely unintended underlying patterns, or codes, which organize and help give meaning to texts, show a longing for a stability the Structuralists claim to have renounced. According to Deconstruction, Structuralists want stability, however squeamish they are about finding it in a personal source, as in individual consciousness or will.

Deconstruction attacks Structuralism for wanting to come to rest upon the very codes—linguistic, signifying codes—it takes grim pleasure in describing. Structuralism has no quarrel with language, and expresses merely the dismay of one imprisoned in it. Deconstruction has many quarrels with language; not with particular languages, English, French, German, and so forth, but with language as such. Many writers, from Locke to T.S. Eliot and Borges, have denounced language; it is a liar, a deceiver, it bewilders the mind with metaphors, dreams, mere dreams. Words, as Eliot wrote in “Burnt Norton,”

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

But Eliot believed that at some congenial moment in the past, perhaps in the first years of the seventeenth century in England, the language was reliable, holding out the possibility, as in Shakespeare and Donne, of unity of experience. De Man’s Deconstruction, on the contrary, refuses to be appeased: if language appears to hold out such a promise of words and experience truly converging, the appearance is a deceit, the promise a trap. We are naive if we expect language to serve our purposes and desires. Deconstruction is the practice, in reading, of one who refuses to be lulled into the complacency of self, into believing in the stability of reference, or in the appearance of a seamless web of meanings. It is a debunking of the delusory tokens of meaning and reference. In one of the essays on Rousseau in Allegories of Reading, de Man writes:

The deconstruction of a system of relationships always reveals a more fragmented stage that can be called natural with regard to the system that is being undone.

This ostensibly “natural” stage then substitutes its own system of relationships for the one it helped to undo. It conceals, therefore, the fact that it is itself merely one system among many: it has no better claim to being natural than the system it undermined. The pretentions of each and every system to be the true one can be endlessly uncovered. But the work of Deconstruction is indeed endless, because each stage or pattern tries to take possession of the entire ground, and must be shown to be specious.

The simplest example of a deconstructive reading is de Man’s account of Yeats’s “Among School Children.” Normally, the last stanza of that poem is taken to be a celebration of a possible unity of being. The condition is represented by the chestnut tree, “great rooted blossomer,” thriving upon the order of natural life, organic unity of leaf, blossom, and bole. The poem culminates in another symbol, that of the dancer, “O body swayed to music.” Again, most readers interpret the last line, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” as claiming the felicity of not having to know one from the other, since they have converged. As if to say: Isn’t it wonderful that one can reach a state of being, a condition of unity, so complete that it is not necessary to distinguish between the dancer and the dance? But de Man rejects this felicity. He insists that it is not possible to be sure whether the stanza says what most readers think it is saying, or the reverse: that in some circumstances or in some respect one needs to distinguish between the dancer and the dance.

It follows, according to de Man, that “two entirely coherent but entirely incompatible readings” of the last line of the poem—“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”—have to engage each other “in direct confrontation, for the one reading is precisely the error denounced by the other and has to be undone by it.” Neither of the interpretations “can be given priority over the other.” Neither “can exist in the other’s absence.”

In the same spirit, de Man threw the force of his suspicion upon any “system of relationships” that implies unity of experience. In an essay on Camus, he referred to “the naive belief in a harmony at the beginning of things.” In one of his most influential essays, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” de Man fastened upon symbolism as an especially insidious mode of bewilderment. A symbol starts out as a natural object: the moon, say. It becomes a symbol when people start feeling that it is somehow analogous to human desires. The moon appears and disappears; when it is visible, it seems to shine. It can be fancied, therefore, to participate in our feelings of transience, intermittent happiness, as in common experiences of love. Poets and lovers come to feel that the moon is not an indifferent object but can be thought of as somehow receptive to their desires and satisfactions. So Wordsworth reports that on one occasion “the moon doth with delight look round her when the heavens are bare”; and Sir Philip Sidney muses, “With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climbst the skies!” It is easy to feel, on such occasions, that the apparent rift between one’s consciousness and the world in which it finds itself has been, at least for the moment, transcended. Unity of experience is possible, at least for a brief interval between indifferences.

Much of the literature of Romanticism has been concerned to discover this felicity and to justify it: hence, as in Coleridge, the superiority claimed for symbols as tokens of a possible unity. It was a disputed point whether the unity of experience depended upon the individual imagination’s fiat or upon its ready acknowledgment of a blessing lavished upon it by God through manifold objects. If the former, the crucial act of the mind is subjective, an act of interiorization, transforming the world into itself: if the latter, the mind has merely to open itself to receive the gift.

In either case, symbol in Romantic literature was set off in a privileged position by comparison with allegory, in which the meaning is abstracted from the sensory event and keeps its distance. Allegory, whether in Spenser, Dryden, or Swift, is a structure in which the meaning is found at a distance from the words that sanction it. In allegory, as distinct from symbolism, the words do not coincide with their meanings, moment by moment, but find their “real” or “true” meanings by being correlated with other terms, fulfilling other patterns. In Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, for instance, the apparently timeless adventures of Artegall become significant, find their destiny, only when they are interpreted as referring to certain historical events of the reign of Queen Elizabeth: the defeat of the Spaniards in the Netherlands, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Allegorical meaning is held in abeyance till a moral or historical correlative completes it.

Most Romantic poets and critics thought allegory a secondary achievement, and placed it far below the salt. De Man, on the other hand—following Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama—thought allegory worthier than symbolism, precisely because it didn’t hold out any offer of the unity of experience: it had the decency to maintain the distance between the story being told and the historical and moral forces referred to, and to discourage the sentimental longing for unity. When Spenser wrote to Raleigh that the Faerie Queene signified Glory in the abstract and Queen Elizabeth in particular, he did not mean that the Faerie Queene could be identified with either but that she would determine corresponding meanings upon both levels. In “The Rhetoric of Temporality” de Man writes:

Whereas the symbol postulates the possibility of an identity or identification, allegory designates primarily a distance in relation to its own origin, and, renouncing the nostalgia and the desire to coincide, it establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference. In so doing, it prevents the self from an illusory identification with the non-self, which is now fully, though painfully, recognized as a non-self.

Allegory, de Man writes in The Resistance to Theory, cuts itself off “sharply from symbolic and aesthetic syntheses,” and that is its merit.

For much the same reason, de Man directs his suspicion against metaphor and indeed against any claim to knowledge. In Allegories of Reading he says, correctly, that metaphor is “an exchange or substitution of properties on the basis of resemblance”; a process made possible “by a proximity or an analogy so close and intimate that it allows the one to substitute for the other without revealing the difference necessarily introduced by the substitution.” Other theorists have emphasized rather the tension between resemblance and difference in metaphor, and have thought metaphors good precisely to the degree to which the tension is maintained. When Donne writes of parted lovers as a pair of compasses, with one foot fixed and the other in motion elsewhere, the resemblance and the difference are indeed sustained. But de Man, ignoring or putting aside such examples, suggested that in metaphor the mind wants to suppress differences and to enforce resemblance to the point of what he called “totalization”—total identity. He could not tolerate what he regarded as the mind’s regression, through the recognition of resemblance, to the gratuitous satisfactions of unity. In the same way, he regarded the claim to know as “an unwarranted totalization of the claim to perceive and to feel.”


A question now arises that is not raised in either Responses or Reading de Man Reading: Why, life being short and the night approaching, did Paul de Man so fiercely deny himself not only the consolation of philosophy but the pleasures of fiction? Why does his mature work seem so punitive, punishing himself as severely as his readers?

Let us think back to Brussels and 1940. I will argue in what follows that the young Paul de Man—the man who fled from Brussels and then returned, who rejected, then endorsed, then repudiated Nazi ideas—was a radically divided person; divided, among other considerations, over the relation of thought to action, including political thought and political action. The division may have taken many other forms, on which my speculations would be vain. But in 1940 and for about two years thereafter it seemed to him that he could seize the day, run to possess the future. It must have been a release for him, and a source of the new-found conviction of unity, to feel that he was on the crest of the wave of history. The fact that he was wrong, and was proved wrong, threw him back upon his earlier divided state and made him for the rest of his life fixated upon the forms that division took: thereafter, he was obsessed with discrepancy, rupture, disconnection, and he refused every mitigation. He came to believe, I would suggest, that the state of division was not merely his own but universal. Whatever he read, he sought and found there proof positive of division. In “The Temptation of Permanence” (October 1955) he wrote that

…far from being antihistorical, the poetical act (in the general sense that includes all the arts) is the quintessential historical act: that through which we become conscious of the divided character of our being, and consequently, of the necessity of carrying out and fulfilling that divided character in the present, instead of suffering it in the afterlife [de la nécessité de l’accomplir, de la faire dans le temps, au lieu de le subir dans l’éternité].

I’m convinced, on the evidence of reading de Man’s entire published work in the chronological order of its composition, that he lived simultaneously on two levels. One of these was the day-to-day level, with its ordinary or unusual occurrences, événements minor and major, the level on which one experiences fear, desire, love, war, and discusses these experiences in the vocabulary of causation, concrete fact, and sequential movement.

But there was another level of experience which once seemed to him to float free above contingencies. This second level was exemplified for de Man, and it can be seen even in his wartime writings, by the evolution of artistic forms. Poetic forms live, he asserted, like free organisms, having an infancy, a maturity, and a decadence: “Their vital process must unroll itself in a continuous manner, without allowing itself to be checked or stopped by extra-formal considerations” (“par des considérations extra-formelles“). Literature is therefore “an independent domain that has a life, laws, and obligations that belong to it alone, and that in no way depend on the philosophical and ethical contingencies that take place on its margins” (Le Soir, December 2, 1941). In his later writings, especially when he was provoked by certain passages in Heidegger and in Maurice Blanchot, de Man rejected this “poetic eternalism,” and he refused to identify the two levels as those of Becoming and Being. But in his personal and professional life, I think, he retained both levels, and held their constituents apart, even though he did not name them or consider them distinct.

The first level may be called that of his “empirical self,” if we use the distinction that de Man made, in an essay on the psychoanalyst Ludwig Binswanger, between one’s empirical self and one’s “ontological self.” On the empirical level de Man worked, made a living, married and remarried, and protected himself against scrutiny. If pressed about his wartime years, he lied. Or he elided the war from his record, as in a letter of June 6, 1955, to Harry Levin in which he referred to “the long and painful soul-searching of those who, like myself, come from the left and from the happy days of the Front Populaire.” In a formal letter of January 26, 1955, to Renato Poggioli, who needed reassurance, on behalf of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, in regard to certain rumors about “my political past,” as de Man called it, “particularly under the German occupation,” he lied again, claiming that his father was Henri de Man, and that the controversy surrounding Henri de Man in Belgium had unfairly settled upon him, Paul de Man, by virtue of “the connotations of my name.” (This grotesque letter is printed in Responses.) He even had the nerve to say, in “The Literature of Nihilism” (1966), that “critical nationalism, rare in the United States, is a frequent sin among European critics,” neglecting to mention that in this respect he himself had sinned.

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.


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

The Higher Criticism September 28, 1989

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    De Man on Heidegger on Hölderlin can’t easily be paraphrased, but the rough gist of the matter is that Hölderlin’s poetry “is critical of its own certitudes, their illusory character unveiled.” De Man concludes that “the poetic word” cannot establish Being; it lives only in the desire of Being, and therefore in its fateful absence. It cannot establish Being, for “as soon as the word is uttered, it destroys the immediate and discovers that instead of stating Being, it can only state mediation.” Language cannot reunite what it has separated by naming: Being and Becoming. “Their unity is ineffable and cannot be said, because it is language itself that introduces the distinction.”

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