Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Pathos (Allegories of Reading)

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Pathos (Allegories of Reading)

Article excerpt

MANY READERS HAVE DIFFICULTY IMAGINING WHAT THE FORMS OF SELFHOOD proposed by poststructuralist theory are supposed to feel like, and some assume that the very idea of strong emotion is inconsistent with poststructuralist theories of the self. Alongside this concern runs another one, that poststructuralist texts are not very affective. De Man's work has been used to exemplify both the claim that poststructuralist writing is cold and the claim that it does not possess an adequate account of emotion.(1) John Guillory, for example, argues that de Man's students are forced by their belief in de Manian rhetorical theory to repress their passionate relation to de Man himself. Guillory implies that the emotions of de Man's students speak louder than their poststructuralist ideas, circulating in anecdotes "alongside the doctrine ... but not in immediate logical relation to that doctrine."(2) Leaving aside, for the most part, the separate question of whether de Man's texts themselves seem to embody emotions, I would like to propose here that after 1971, de Man develops an explicit and highly organized theory of emotion consistent with poststructuralist notions of selfhood and de Man's own rhetorical principles. It is one of the main purposes of Allegories of Reading to convey this theory.

The inverse ratio, in Allegories, between the ardor of de Man's chosen authors and his own apparent ease is interesting. De Man comments on his texts' emotionality in his preface:

   The choice of Proust and of Rilke as examples is partly due to chance, but
   since the ostensible pathos of their tone and depth of their statement make
   them particularly resistant to a reading that is no longer entirely
   thematic, one could argue that if their work yields to such a rhetorical
   scheme, the same would necessarily be true for writers whose rhetorical
   strategies are less hidden behind the seductive powers of
   identification.(3)

De Man associates pathos with thematics: pathos urges the reader toward an "entirely thematic" interpretation. By "thematic," de Man also means "referential"--not in the direct sense in which everything represented would be understood as having occurred, but in an indirect one in which the general meanings of the texts would be located in their authors' intentionality and psychology. Thus, de Man connects pathos to the popular-epistemological assumption that keenly affecting texts must be based in the real--in real, not fictive, emotions. According to de Man, then, his book undertakes an expose of "ostensible pathos" in literary texts; it calls our attention to the deployment of pathos as a persuasive tactic. This self-description helps to create the impression that de Man is hostile to emotion, or at least believes it to be a mere illusion behind which lurks "a rhetorical scheme." But this would follow only if we assumed, first, that de Man believed all emotions were "ostensible"; and, second, that he believed such phenomena were not real emotions.(4) Allegories of Reading attacks the second of these views. De Man is skeptical about emotions in that he questions our motives for representing them and even having them: we use emotions, he argues, to mitigate epistemological uncertainties. When we don't know what to think, emotions give us something to feel; they make our unstable perceptions and sensations seem more stable and nameable. The analysis of emotions therefore reveals self-serving elements in the way we think about ourselves. To inquire into the motivation of emotions, however, is to doubt neither their experiential existence nor their ability to affect us. Indeed, de Man's preface assumes the power of emotions not only to move the self, but to become "seductive," or contagious. Still less--and this should be obvious--does his inquiry underestimate, neglect, or somehow fail to face up to emotion.

The originality and controversy of de Man's view lies in his identification of emotions and figures. …

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