Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Ancestral Voices: De Man and His Defenders

WILLIAM FLESCH

Ces faces moins reluisantes du caractère d'un homme de génie déroutent les admirateurs simplistes qui veulent retrouver dans les aspects familiers de leur idole le reflet de la perfection qui les éblouit.—Paul de Man, 7 October 1941

Les idées sont choses cohérentes et rigoureuses, ce que les réactions humaines ne sont pas.—de Man, 24 June 1941

Ceci pour dire que cette guerre prit, dans le cours de notre vie individuelle, l'allure d'un remous absolument en dehors de la normale. Pour la plupart, son souvenir n'est plus qu'une hallucination dont on a peine à croire qu'elle fut une réalité, un cauchemar éveillé qui ne cessa que lorsque la vie s'ordonna à nouveau, conformément aux anciennes habitudes.—de Man, 30 April 1942


I

De Man's writing in 1940-42 is unforgivable. As a public act it is deeply collaborationist. There is no question that collaborationism can often be defended as the lesser of two evils. Historians frequently and rightly distinguish between collaborators and collaborationists, the former out simply for a share of the Nazi's spoils, the latter seeking an alliance which would spare their countries from the utter destruction reserved for less pliant victims of Nazi aggression. In specific cases the distinction is almost always blurred, and so it seems to be with de Man.

My overwhelming impression, after several readings of the Le Soir articles, is that they testify to a kind of wistful or wishful arrogance: the arrogance of someone very young allowed very early to render the last judgments on a number of literary and cultural issues; the wishfulness of someone hoping that his new patrons are in fact decent people. It may be that he construed as decent activities that were in fact unforgivable—both theirs and his own. He might have been able to imagine that the occupiers, decent and honorable as he would have wanted to see them, would concede certain cultural judgments that they might disagree with.

He can imagine, that is, that he will be able to preserve the cultural values authentically dear to him. But he can only imagine this because he has convinced himself that they're not antithetical to Nazi values. And this means not only that he tends to whitewash the aggressor; he also does a lot of special pleading for a theory of culture able to accommodate Nazi ideology as well as his own deeply held beliefs. And so these beliefs, consonant as they largely come to be with the aims of the occupiers, themselves suffer corruption.

I don't think it right to try to untangle the skein of motivations, since motivation is always overdetermined. I think de Man made a fairly easy compromise with the occupiers, one which allows itself hope of a reasonable future in a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany, a flattering future in which such Belgian voices as de Man's will be taken very seriously. For the tone of Olympian detachment and assurance in his articles seems highly self-regarding. In a new order, he would want to maintain the position he has now, that of a cultural arbiter for Belgium. And to want this means two things. He has the laudable goal of preserving, even under German hegemony, the autonomy of Belgian culture (and of Romance culture in general, and also of Flemish culture, against whose assimilation to Germany he warns). But a more venal motive would coexist, since he would profit (and does profit already) from the situation that has made this opportunity available.

He repeatedly insists on the relative autonomy of the aes

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