Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Perspectives: on De Man and Le Soir

JEFFREY MEHLMAN

Some years ago, in a text of homage to Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, without malice but with a touch of the unwitting resentment that only the deconstructed perhaps harbor, proposed the oddest of analogies. The historical sequence he was invariably reminded of upon reading Derrida, he wrote, was the "exodus" of 1940: "A retreating military unit arrives in a town as yet unaware of anything, in which the cafés are open, ladies are shopping in ladies' shops, haircutters cutting hair, bakers baking, viscounts meeting other viscounts in order to exchange anecdotes about viscounts, and in which everything is deconstructed (déconstruit) and desolate an hour later." 1 Such would be the frisson nouveau introduced by Derrida: a traumatic rendering of the traditional sites of thought so "uninhabitable" that the principal shock it evokes out of Levinas' memory is the evacuation of town after town in anticipation of Hitler's surge westward. Ortwin de Graef's discovery of the numerous articles published by Paul de Man in Le Soir during the first half of World War II is perhaps first of all an invitation to imagine Levinas' improbable metaphor as metonymy, his analogy as sequence. For de Man, it now appears, served, in the course of his life, as champion of two radical cultural movements from abroad: as partisan of the Nazi "revolution" among the Walloons in the 1940's and as advocate of "deconstruction" among the Americans in the 1970's. Hitler's jolt to European sensibilities—too devastatingly rapid, as de Man repeatedly suggests in Le Soir, to have registered in psychological terms—and Derrida's, that is, are less the stuff of grotesque analogy (Levinas) than nodes of a complex continuum one name of which may be the "life of Paul de Man." 2

Metonymy is the trope of contamination, which is one source of its appeal to deconstruction in its efforts to dismantle what de Man, on Proust, has called "the totalizing stability of metaphorical processes." 3 But the intertextual contamination deconstruction all but demands between de Man's two "revolutions" (of the 1940's and the 1970's) is open to a restricted—or remetaphorized—reading we should do well to confront at the outset. For those who have always warmed to the liberatory aspect of deconstruction's destabilizing tendencies, the revelation of de Man's enthusiastic endorsement of a Nazi Europe might be contained by claiming that deconstruction was plainly the remedy—acknowledged or not—for the ill of collaboration. Ecclesia super cloacam: the church remains no less splendid for being built over the sewer of European history. That such a proposition repeats in its structure the triumphalist interpretation of Proust that de Man rejected should give us pause: to "save" deconstruction by subsuming the relation between de Man's "deconstruction" and his "collaboration" with the Nazis

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