• Email
  • Print

Deconstruction, the Nazis, & Paul De Man

In response to:

The Strange Case of Paul de Man from the June 29, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

Denis Donoghue’s excellent piece on Paul de Man [NYR, June 29] addresses itself to two questions: what is the history and character of de Man’s wartime writings? and, if these writings are morally reprehensible, how do they reflect on his later theory of “deconstruction”? I am not entirely satisfied with Professor Donoghue’s response to the second question.

Assume that Donoghue is entirely correct in his response to the first question and so that the early de Man’s affirmation of the Nazi cause is an indisputable fact. Assume too that Donoghue is correct in construing (evidently in keeping with de Man’s own suggestions) the relationship between de Man’s wartime deeds and his later literary theory as that between an “empirical self” and a “higher” self. Finally, assume that Donoghue is correct in his characterization of de Man’s version of Deconstruction as a theory intended to undermine all pretensions—including those evident in grand political ideologies—to unity, permanence, transcendent Beauty. There are crucial obstacles to concluding, with Donoghue, that Deconstruction is not compromised by de Man’s involvement with Nazism (it is crucial to note that here and below I confine myself to de Man’s understanding of the term “Deconstruction” as explained by Donoghue).

Let us put the question as conservatively as possible. Is there anything in Deconstruction that could serve as a basis for repudiating (and so providing an ethical critique of) Nazism? Grant for a moment that the theory does not logically entail Nazism, and that lots of perfectly respectable persons have taken a shine to the theory. Does the theory provide a basis for criticism of that sort of political program? I doubt that it does, and this because it renders theoretically unintelligible basic moral terms such as “good” and “evil.” That is, if the claim to know is an “unwarranted totalization of the claim to perceive and feel” (Donoghue quoting from de Man, NYR, p. 36), then we cannot “know” what “good” and “evil” mean. Thus de Man’s theory does not permit us to utter the sentence “Nazism is evil” with any theoretical justification; when pressed, we could only say that, given the sensibility of one’s empirical state at the moment the statement was uttered, it is felt that Nazism is evil (or good, as the case may be). Is not an account to that effect morally suspect?

It is also hard to see that Deconstruction would require criticism of personal involvement in Nazism or the equivalent, for Deconstruction dissolves the notions of personal accountability and responsibility that would permit us to hold an “empirical self” to the test. Accused, one need only say “my empirical self made me do it,” “it’s just empirical,” etc. Correspondingly, de Man’s effort to conceal his deeds seems perfectly consistent with Deconstruction. Why should he take responsibility for the doings of his “empirical self,” given his understanding of what terms like “self,” “free will,” “intention,” and “responsibility” mean (or rather, fail to mean)? And what would it mean to say, given his theory, that lying is morally reprehensible under these or any other circumstances?

One could further argue that Deconstruction is not just compatible with Nazism and the like, but that it also encourages it, and this by destroying, on the ground of repeating the Platonic yearning for Unity, all moral systems that do insist on accountability, on moral judgment supported by reasons, and so forth.

Donoghue indicates that Deconstruction amounted to a repudiation of de Man’s wartime political views in that these views made indefensible “aesthetic” assumptions about totality and unity. One might therefore say that Deconstruction does have concrete political consequences, namely the repudiation of all comprehensive political programs. The political result of Deconstruction is, on this account, anarchy. But the moment anarchy is formulated as a concrete political goal it will take on the logical properties of unity, coherence, value, etc. (anarchy as a “just” or “good” state of affairs people ought to bring about). To advocate anarchy would be to unite theory and practice in an impermissible way. Thus Deconstruction could lead to a concrete political program only in theory, so to speak. And that is compatible, again, with acting in practice in any number of repugnant ways.

Donoghue’s de Man could take a different tack, and say: “look, my whole point is that there isn’t any comprehensive theoretical argument for or against any political or moral scheme; my theory to that effect is politically and morally neutral.” In addition to nullifying the claim that Deconstruction repudiated de Man’s earlier views, this argument rests on an illusion. As is evidenced by the abortion issue, for example, to take an ostensibly “neutral” (an “it’s up to the individual’s choice”) position is in fact to take a definite position that abortion is permissible and so that the fetus is not a “person” in the requisite sense. Analogously, Lincoln pointed out to Stephen Douglas that to argue that enslaving someone is a choice a slaveowner has a “right” to make is to assume that slavery is not morally wrong.

In any event, the whole, vaguely Platonic distinction between “empirical” and “higher” self seems suspect in terms of Deconstruction and in itself. From within the horizon of Deconstruction, what would it mean to talk even about an empirical self? From outside that horizon, there are questions to be pressed, many of a self-reflexive nature: does not Deconstruction itself have to commit to principles of unity and comprehensiveness even as it attempts to repudiate these principles?

These sorts of questions are very old ones in the history of philosophy, thanks in good part to the crucial role that skepticism has played in that history.* Donoghue is surely right that Deconstruction should be understood as a chapter in that history. It follows, however, that Deconstruction must answer forceful criticisms skeptics have always had to face, and some of these criticisms bear on the morality of their enterprise.

Charles L. Griswold, Jr.
Howard University
Washington, DC

Denis Donoghue replies:

Charles Griswold agrees with me that there is nothing in Deconstruction that compels or even encourages its adepts to support Nazism. But then he argues that nothing in Deconstruction provides an ethical criticism of Nazism. That is true. But I can’t see how this consideration damages Deconstruction, for it never claimed or pretended to provide such criticism. I take Deconstruction to be a skeptical form of reading: its aim is to discourage people from assuming that such notions as selfhood, identity, will, meaning, history, and form are reliable because self-evident. To make his case, Professor Griswold would have to show that decent political attitudes can only prevail if these notions continue to be taken for granted. I don’t think this can be shown. Nor do I think that Deconstruction removes accountability. If I maintain, as I do, that some of Paul de Man’s readings of poems by Wordsworth, Yeats, and other writers are erroneous, I don’t expect to be told that the question of his being right or wrong about these poems can’t be raised. In the current controversy, so far as I know, nobody has claimed that the question of de Man’s one-time relation to Nazism doesn’t arise.

  1. *

    I have attempted to work through questions of this sort, with reference to Deconstruction, in the Epilogue to Self-Knowledge in Plato’s Phaedrus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), and in “Plato’s Metaphilosophy: Why Plato Wrote Dialogues,” in Platonic Writings, Platonic Readings, ed. C. Griswold, (New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1988): 143–167. With reference to classical skepticism, see M.F. Burnyeat’s “Can the Skeptic Live his Skepticism?” in The Skeptical Tradition, ed. M.F. Burnyeat (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983): 117–148.

  • Email
  • Print