Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

To Read Paul de Man

ARIS FIORETOS

Translated from Swedish by Birgit Baldwin

.... Paul de Man's past as a literary columnist was treated in the Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, on February 17, 1988, by Bengt Holmqvist, a critic who always has shown both sensitivity and a decisive respect for sources. Unfortunately, the title of Holmqvist's contribution is insinuating and less well-chosen: "The Godfather's Possibility of Excusing Every Guilt." The next day in Expressen, Gabi Gleichmann reiterated at times almost verbatim the same information as Holmqvist, under the troubling title "A Waldheim Behind Postmodernism." The headings share two features. First, both assume that de Man's role within modem literary theory was that of the patriarch and the authority. That is to say, this role belonged to a man with imperial power. Second, the titles underscore the highly dubious nature of this authority. Either the story is about a gangster, with the implication that he belongs to a "family," united by blood bonds and oaths of faith that cannot be broken except in death. Or else it deals with a head of state with such a dubious past that he, by means of repeated lies masked as patriotism, tries to save face. In both cases, it is a question of associating authority with alliances that exercise terror. Holmqvist and Gleichmann do not, of course, necessarily have to be burdened with the choice of titles. But, on the other hand, the text in Dagens Nyheter, for which Holmqvist indeed has to be considered responsible, states that de Man "was considered to be the godfather of the hermeneutical school, capo di tutti capi, and the principal figure among 'deconstructors.'" The heading thus hardly lacks support in the article. Besides the fact the quotation here is indirect (it is attributed to no one, but stems from Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism [1980]), one might ask whether de Man was ever considered the leader of "the hermeneutical school." Instead, it would be safer to say that de Man's interest in rhetoric could not unproblematically be reconciled with hermeneutical study in the German philosophical sense. Luckily enough, the text in Expressen meanwhile lacks the nouns that figure in its title. Neither Waldheim nor postmodernism are named by Gleichmann, which naturally is to be welcomed, since de Man probably would have had a good deal to say concerning both phenomena.

Both Holmqvist and Gleichmann base themselves on two articles from the American press: the scantily informed text in the New York Times and a misinformed report by David Lehman in Newsweek. In distinction to Gleichmann, Holmqvist names his secondary sources. For those acquainted with these American products, it is quite clear that they do not distinguish themselves by means of journalistic astuteness. Not only do they seem to have no knowledge about de Man's Belgian journalism, a lack that is as telling as it is aggravating, but they have also in

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