Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Edges of Understanding

RODOLPHE GASCHÉ

Undoubtedly, the discovery of de Man's early journalistic writings represents a formidable legacy for his friends and foes alike. The bequest consists of coming to grips, in an intellectually and ethically responsible fashion, with the shocking fact that during a brief period, the young de Man wrote a literary chronicle for Le Soir, a newspaper whose political columns were at that time under strong German control. Responsible examination, however, requires detailed and in-depth documentation of the historical, cultural and political situation of Belgium between 1939 and 1942, so that the truly incriminating facts can be established with the necessary precision, and no confusion remains as to what under the given circumstances can and cannot be laid to de Man's charge. Responsible examination also requires that such inquiry be conducted in the spirit of respect that both friend and foe, as Others, demand. Yet, from the precipitation with which de Man's case has been taken up by the academic community and the newspapers, from the ludicrous and delirious charges leveled against him, as well as from the hatred that is evident in so many of the accounts, it is more than clear that the challenge of determining exactly what de Man's wartime activities amount to and what they mean has not been met. Or rather, since most of the discussions that have taken place have deliberately dismissed the most elementary rules of documentation (in this case, reading for instance, the incriminating material) as well as all other standards of philological honesty and integrity, not to mention the basic ethical guidelines for any debate, the minimal conditions for discussion have simply not been met. On cannot but be deeply terrified by the silliness, stupidity and maliciousness of the accounts in question, especially if one keeps in mind that the primary goal of the rage in question is a settling of accounts with "deconstruction." Indeed, one must assume that such trampling of all rules intellectual and ethical in the rampage against de Man and "deconstruction" is supposed to set future standards for the academic community. Disregard of history, disrespect for textual evidence, wild analogization, subjective elucubration, irrational outburst, are among the stupefying exemplars raised to the status of precepts for the learning community.

If we are then to take account of de Man's war-time writings, and if we may, indeed, be compelled to consider them irresponsible and unpardonable, let us at least establish as precisely as possible what it is that we may have to judge as inadmissible. Intellectual probity and moral integrity require that we do so.

De Man's collaboration with a Nazi-controlled newspaper was obviously utterly irresponsible. But ifthis is not to be an abstract judgment (and thus a misjudgment) the irresponsibility has to be set into its proper context: the desire on the

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