Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Literature, Ideology

HANS-JOST FREY

Translated by Stuart Barnett

In this essay I will attempt to read some of the texts that Paul de Man wrote in the years 1941 and 1942 for the Brussels newspaper Le Soir with regard to both the conception of literature that is put forth in them and the political and ideological stance that can be read out of them. I will not attempt in this context to establish connections to de Man's later writing, even though I consider this important for a later phase.

The essay of December 2, 1941 bears the title Sur les possibilités de la critique and is an attempt to secure literary criticism's status as an independent discipline by establishing the task specific to it. In pursuit of this, two theses are distinguished which obstruct the realization of such an ambition. The one seeks the criteria of literary judgment in the realm of morality, and the other sees in the work under consideration only an opportunity to display the critic's own creativity. In the first case, criticism becomes moral instruction; in the other, it is itself art. In both cases it is estranged from the actual task by which it acquires its independence: définir la valeur d'un ouvrage littéraire. The evaluation of a work presupposes criteria that cannot be taken from just anywhere. These criteria must, rather, specify that which makes literature art. This leads to the thesis: Le moins qu'on puisse dire est que les valeurs artistiques qui régissent le monde des lettres ne se confondent pas avec celles du Vrai et du Bien et que celui qui emprunterait ses critères à cette région de la conscience humaine se tromperait systématiquement dans ses jugements. Aesthetics is separated here from ethics. And the ethical content of a work is explained as bearing no consequence for its aesthetic value.

The next step must lie in the investigation of aesthetic criteria. The difficulty that emerges here is that there are no eternal laws of the beautiful. The rules are, rather, continually in flux. La difficulté de cette entreprise résulte de l'extrème mobilité des préceptes et des formules esthétiques. Il ne s'agit pas d'une Beauté éternelle et immuable, mais d'une série de mouvements qui se superposent et s'entrecroisent, s'influencent et se combattent et qui, tous, ont leur loi propre. Aesthetics must then be pursued less systematically than historically. This means, however, that the criteria of aesthetic judgment—and thus this judgment itself—are historical. The evaluation of a work is never final; it depends, rather, on the current state of aesthetic norms. This restricts the importance of judgment and at the same time presents the investigation of the change of criteria as a new field of inquiry for criticism. The comparison of different aesthetic possibilities therefore becomes more important than judgment itself (les jugements proprement dits n'apparaîtront que comme une opération presque secondaire) and the task of criticism is no longer merely to judge an individual work, but, rather, to situate it in a development within which it can more or less be effective. In another

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