Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

By Werner Hamacher; Neil Hertz et al. | Go to book overview

Telephonic Crossroads: The Reversal and the Double Cross

TIMOTHY BAHTI

There is a children's language-game: "telephone." The rule of this game is that error must occur as a voice is transferred, from afar, to yet another distance. With each repetition of the voice, the message is increasingly—"immer wieder potenziert"—distorted. Among children, this can give rise to hysterical laughter. Paul de Man would have understood the irony of this "game." What happens when an error "begins" the game, when there is nothing "right" from the start? The telephonics may claim, at its end, a discovery about history and ethical behavior, and another about the project of de Man's theory. It may be worthwhile to try to hear the distortion that is behind the production of the chain.

***

The most infamous piece of de Man's journalism for Le Soir is also his single antisemitic piece. Many have seized on its notorious last paragraph, with its inexcusable gesture toward an evacuation of Jews from European literature by way of its mention of plans to expel Jews from Europe altogether. I have nothing to say in exculpation of such expressions, and there is little further that needs to be added by me about the pain they have caused, above all to de Man's friends. The best evidence available today suggests that de Man refused several times the editorial demand that he write for the special page of anti-Jewish slander, and that he acquiesced only under the threat of not being allowed to continue to publish in Le Soir. This may already be, as has been suggested, to have accepted the unacceptable. There is also the evidence of his later wartime assistance with the publication of an issue of the French resistance journal, Messages, an issue called Exercice du Silence. Independently of the testimonies of those who knew him, and who attest that he was not to the slightest degree an antisemite, these historical circumstances suggest, then, that the article in question is weirdly encoded in and determined by a tactics and perhaps a strategy of wartime publication in occupied Belgium and France.

Much of this has already been carefully and sensitively analyzed, notably by Jacques Derrida. The context will continue to need careful research, and I don't pretend to understand it yet. But something may already be observed about part of the message of this article, "Les Juifs dans la littérature actuelle."

In the middle of the article, on his way to arguing that literature's "basic nature is healthy," de Man invokes its stability amidst the momentous times of the war: "La guerre mondiale a provoqué un bouleversement profond dans le monde politique et économique. Mais la vie artistique a été relativement peu remuée, et les formes que nous connaissons actuellement sont des suites logiques et normales de ce qu'il y avait en avant ... Les

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