Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Paul de Man's 1940-1942 Articles in Context

THOMAS FRIES

Translated from the German by Judith Geerke and Glenn W Most

In the current debate concerning the articles written by Paul de Man from 1940 to 1942, it is striking that both historical and journalistic factors affecting these texts, as well as the particular situation of Belgium at the time, have largely been ignored. Astonishingly, indeed, renowned newspapers (like The New York Times, The Nation, Newsweek, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) have passed judgement in frivolous ignorance of these factors and often even of de Man's articles themselves. Discounting all the sloppiness and slander, it must be assumed that for most of the authors—as well as most contemporary readers—occupied Belgium is far away while the Holocaust is, at least emotionally, relatively near. However, our refusal to make compromises with the catastrophe, the most evil of our century, does not authorize groundless condemnations, especially if one wishes to respect both that catastrophe and the principles of one's own criticism.

Having established this, I do not intend to brighten the dark shadow that lies upon these texts. To see the name and articles of the man who has sharpened our sensibility for the effects of metonymy printed next to an anti-Jewish caricature or an address by Léon Degrelle to a meeting of German and Belgian Hitler Youth delegations is unbearable. Unbearable not only for the sake of the person, to whom I am still attached, but also, as we now know, because the very possibility for the catastrophe arose exactly from this type of tolerated contiguity. However, this should not bar us from continuing our search for the source of learning—especially, since contiguity of this sort did not simply cease in 1945 and can just as well envelope us now. To name just one example, when Louis Malle signs his film Au revoir, les enfants with a personal statement on the persistence of the glance from the past, he transmits to us this intense, yet in the final result (even for him) illegible, link backwards to the Occupation, childhood and destruction. If we do not want simply to dismiss this glance and once again acquiesce in a media scenario, 1 we must patiently investigate the context surrounding the extant texts, we must try to understand what has cast this large shadow upon them, how this came to pass. 2

Whoever examines Paul de Man's 1940-1942 articles in their original context quickly feels that he is passing through what is in many respects a lost country. When one leafs through Le Soir, even the familiar details of everyday occurrences seem strange, especially confronted with well-known historical events: strange in the ruins of devastation (not just of war). And the names, even among those French authors reviewed by de Man, many have been almost completely forgotten today. Many were proscribed at the time of the épuration (the post-war purge of the intellectuals accused of collaboration), some sentenced to

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