Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man's War

JACQUES DERRIDA

Translated by Peggy Kamuf

Unable to respond to the questions, to all the questions, I will ask myself instead whether responding is possible and what that would mean in such a situation. And I will risk in turn several questions prior to the definition of a responsibility. But is it not an act to assume in theory the concept of a responsibility? Is that not already to take a responsibility? One's own as well as the responsibility to which one believes one ought to summon others?

The title names a war. Which war?

Do not think only of the war that broke out several months ago around some articles signed by a certain Paul de Man, in Belgium between 1940 and 1942. Later you will understand why it is important to situate the beginning of things public, that is the publications, early in 1940 at the latest, during the war but before the occupation of Belgium by the Nazis, and not in December 1940, the date of the first article that appeared in Le Soir, the major Brussels newspaper that was then controlled, more or less strictly, by the occupiers. For several months, in the United States, the phenomena of this war "around" Paul de Man have been limited to newspaper articles. War, a public act, is by rights something declared. So we will not count in the category of war the private phenomena—meetings, discussions, correspondences, or telephonic conclaves—however intense they may have been in recent days, and already well beyond the American academic milieu.

To my knowledge, at the moment I write, this war presents itself as such, it is declared in newspapers and nowhere else, on the subject of arguments made in newspapers, and nowhere else, in the course of the last world war, during two years almost a half century ago. That is why my title alludes to the passage from Montherlant quoted by de Man in Le Soir in 1941. I will come back to it, but the double edge of its irony already seems cruel: "When I open the newspapers and journals of today, I hear the indifference of the future rolling over them, just as one hears the sound of the sea when one holds certain seashells up to the ear."

The future will not have been indifferent, not for long, just barely a half century, to what de Man wrote one day in the "newspapers and journals of today." One may draw from this many contradictory lessons. But in the several months to follow, the very young journalist that he will have been during less than two years will be read more intensely than the theoretician, the thinker, the writer, the professor, the author of great books that he was during forty years. Is this unfair? Yes, no. But what about later? Here is a prediction and a hope: without ever forgetting the journalist, people will relearn how to read "all" of the work (which is to say so many others as well) toward that

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