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The Higher Criticism

In response to:

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

To the Editors:

In his essay on Paul de Man [NYR, June 29], Denis Donoghue seems to accept a strange and troublesome—one might say “doublesome”—distinction. In dealing with the question why de Man did not “confess his early fault or crime, whatever he might have chosen to call it,” to his friends—and colleagues at Yale, a goodly number of whom were Jews—Donoghue writes:

…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.

At that point, it is still unclear whether Donoghue is being descriptive of de Man’s frame of mind. But in concluding the essay, he seems to accept the distinction:

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.

I puzzle over all this. What makes the second level “higher”? Is simple honesty “inauthentic”? Donoghue seems to be saying that all this was only a personal episode in the life of one man, yet it was also part of an entire current of European thought which played a shameful role in the pre-war years. In the French socialist movement alone, it included Marcel Deat (who proclaimed the “inauthentic” slogan “Why die for Danzig?” to justify appeasement), Paul Faure, Espinasse, Rives, as well as, in Belgium, Paul de Man’s uncle, Henri de Man. What united them all was the feeling that Hitler’s “New Order” would sweep away the old “bourgeois crap.” It was a view held by other French literary men, such as Drieu de la Rochelle, Bardeche, Brassilach, and others. A number of these men were shot for their collaboration; others were sentenced to jail terms. De Man was clearly aware of their fates.

Whether opportunistically or from ideological conviction—his own contempt for bourgeois society—de Man voiced sentiments similar to theirs. Yet if he did repudiate those views, why wasn’t simple honesty enough? Are we to say that simple honesty is “inauthentic” and has to be expressed on some more complex ontological level? And if his writings were a repudiation, they surely were opaque, for none of his colleagues learned about his past from them.

The issue here is not deconstructionism, but the nature of honesty. Why this convoluted retreat into maze-like distinctions between “lower” and “higher” levels?

Daniel Bell
Department of Sociology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Denis Donoghue replies:

I don’t see anything puzzling in either of the passages from my essay which Daniel Bell has quoted. The second level may or may not be higher than the first. It is “higher”—the point of the inverted commas was to indicate that the matter is disputable—because it is the site on which de Man adumbrated a difficult theory of language and examined its bearing upon ethical, political, and aesthetic judgments. He could have done something else. At any moment in the years of his success and fame he could have said, publicly: “When I was a young man in Brussels I did some dreadful things, I wrote these horrible articles, I’m sorry.” He should have said something like that, but he didn’t. I thought my article made this clear—while also making clear my view that in his later years de Man regarded as inauthentic virtually everything he had done in wartime Belgium.

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