Schiller, Goebbels, and Paul De Man: The Dangers of Comparative Studies

By Jones, Michael T. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 1999 | Go to article overview

Schiller, Goebbels, and Paul De Man: The Dangers of Comparative Studies


Jones, Michael T., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Schiller plays a prominent role in the works of Paul deMan, especially in de Man's lecture "Kant and Schiller," where he concludes by likening Schiller's concept of aesthetic humanism to the disastrous "education" performed by Joseph Goebbels. Focusing on the phenomenon of discipleship, this essay explores the politics of teaching comparative literature.

The triumph of deconstructive criticism in the 1970s, besides challenging existing critical or hermeneutic modes of reading, also raised questions about the organization of comparative literature as an institutionalized discipline. When deconstructive critics then turned to texts of the classical heritage in philosophy, new issues arose regarding the appropriate division of academic labor. How do such literary or linguistic readings differ from traditional "philosophical" ones? How does the reader acquire the necessary expertise to undertake them? What pedagogical ramifications ensue from this excursion into interdisciplinarity?

For the purpose of addressing such issues, the career of no individual provides a more instructive focusing lens than that of Paul de Man (1919-83). A native of Antwerp, Belgium, he emigrated to the United States in 1948, and in 1954 he was accepted into the prestigious Harvard Society of Fellows where he spent the remainder of the decade completing his doctorate. Following a series of teaching jobs--at Cornell, back in Europe at the University of Zurich, and Johns Hopkins--in 1970 he was employed by Yale University as professor of French and Comparative Literature. His first book, Blindness and Insight (1971), in which he documented his debt to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and demonstrated a new style of critical reading, led to a widespread reading of Derrida and initiated radical developments in American criticism. This new style of reading, which Derrida had christened "deconstruction," was crowned by de Man's 1979 collection of essays Allegories of Reading, which focuses on the way that texts expose their own reflexiveness or awareness of themselves as rhetorical systems and in this way undermine their would-be authority. From the mid- 1970s onward, North American literary criticism witnessed both the triumphant success of deconstruction, with its headquarters at Yale, and the vehement animosity with which its opponents reacted. Department after department, of literature as well as other disciplines, became battlegrounds between scholars who were for or against the new--for some, newfangled--approach to textual analysis.

Writing as a student who was at Yale at this time, but now a distanced observer, in this essay I wish to explore, and will first begin by discussing, the authority that gravitated toward de Man as the acknowledged leader of the most influential critical innovation in decades, along with the institutional ramifications of that authority for the study of comparative literature. Turning next to the consequences of the widening of literary focus to incorporate philosophical texts, I will look closely at de Man's quarrel with Schiller's concept of "aesthetic education"--i.e., the theory of moral and political betterment through art--and in the process delineate de Man's own concept of "aesthetic ideology," or the notion that Schiller's aesthetic thought is infected with ominous political tendencies. Finally, I will consider the implications of the seismic shock induced by the posthumous discovery of pro-German newspaper articles that de Man wrote in Belgium from 1940 to 1942, and draw attention to the increasing concern about the problems of literary pedagogy evidenced by de Man himself in his late work.

In the competitive environment of literary studies at Yale in the 1970s, students like me were spending virtually every waking hour struggling to gain some tenuous grip on one national literature (English, French, German, etc.). While there was a general sense that literature could not be restricted in this way, traditional institutional structures--e. …

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