Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Regarding the Signatory

ALEXANDER GELLEY

It would be so nice to have it all behind us and get on with our work. 1 There is a widespread wish, both in the scholarly-critical community and outside it, for a quick resolution, a clear judgment. The news media have so accustomed us to summary judgments that a call to express oneself publicly about an individual who has been "in the news" seems automatically to invite a categorical, global judgment. Yet even in more reasoned circles I have the impression of some impatience with this picking over one man's reputation.

But to acquiesce in this kind of impulse is to abandon precisely those criteria—theoretical, political, moral—that are at work, that are constantly being tested and refined, in the best sort of criticism. Paul de Man was one of the foremost teachers to a generation of literary scholars of just this kind of criticism. We can do no less than to abide its lesson in considering his own writings. When this is done (and the task, for the most part, still lies ahead) I venture to say that he will not come off lightly. But, I also think, much in his teaching and in his example will survive.

The impact that the disclosures about de Man's early work has had in recent months is in a sense an index of the impact that de Man himself had in the American scene of the last two decades. He was called on to play a singular role in this scene, one that we should try to understand in terms of the phenomenon as a whole rather than of personal gifts or intentions on the part of de Man or anyone else. Not that the function of an individual is irrelevant, but it is all too tempting to inflate this function and neglect the much harder task of examining a historical scene, our scene, one in which we are still caught up even as we try to articulate its pre-history. What is at stake is less de Man the person than a "de Man effect." I want to frame the issue so that it will be possible to reflect on de Man's place in this effect, but without limiting that effect to his ideas, his personality, his possible culpability.

"We ought, to be true to his spirit, to resist that piety [toward the work or toward the man] as hard as some have resisted his theories." Thus wrote E.S. Burt in the Yale French Studies memorial issue for de Man (YFS 69, p.12). One might think that the revelation of the'41-42 articles has facilitated that task, relieved us of interfering piety and allowed us to look more directly at the substance of de Man's work. But for myself any such release from piety only displaces the problem of how to read de Man. For that is what it still comes down to, how to read ... de Man, Rousseau, Proust, Derrida, many others. But also there is a change. One cannot pretend that the texts remain the same. Something has shifted when we add those early articles to the corpus of de Man's oeuvre, a modulation has come over the name itself as signatory of the texts, and what that

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