Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Resisting, Responding

KEVIN NEWMARK

Je ne pouvais savoir s'il s'agissait d'une question ou seulement d'un ordre, d'un encouragement. Comme j'avais l'impression que ces mots ne s'adressaient pas précisément à moi, je ressentais à leur égard une certaine liberté, celle de pouvoir, le cas échéant, y répondre légèrement, moi aussi ... c'est une effrayante épreuve ... à qui n'a rien, elle demande; celui qui répond à sa demande ne le sait pas et, à cause de cela, ne répond pas ... l'appel a toujours lieu, il n'a pas besoin qu'on réponde, il n'a jamais réellement lieu, c'est pourquoi il n'est pas possible de lui répondre. Mais celui qui ne répond pas, plus que tout autre, est enfermé dans sa réponse.-Maurice Blanchot

Ordinarily, that is, under so-called normal circumstances, we understand the role of the respondent to be one of informing and interpreting; because of a privilege that is certainly temporal but also perhaps one of perspective or point of view, the respondent occupies a place of mediation between an event, often textual, and the potential meaning of such an event. 1 The respondent's job is first to bring to light and then possibly to reflect on those elements of an event, or a text, that can most effectively be used to initiate the process of its future interpretation or understanding. To respond in this sense requires certain skills and a certain amount of instruction or learning so that the process by which the event actually takes place can then be communicated in an accurate and intelligible way by the respondent to those for whom he is speaking or writing. But it can also happen that somewhere along the way, due to unforeseen circumstances, things change, and that therefore the respondent is no longer to be understood in this way as a mere reporter or interpreter. It can happen that the respondent has not so much been invited to speak to a neutral and disinterested audience of fellow hermeneuts as summoned or even subpoenaed to answer or testify in a court of law composed of a judge and jury; let us not forget that only a slight change of context is needed to make a respondent over into a defendant. And this can happen even when your name is not literally printed in the docket.

This, of course, is the strange story—which is also, at least to some extent and in a certain way, the impossibility or collapse of all story-telling—that befalls the anonymous narrator in Blanchot's La Folie du jour (The Madness of the Day). 2 Written in I948, the text deals with someone who discovers to his surprise that he is not, or is no longer dealing directly with the light, with the light of day, le jour, conceived at once as daylight and the light of understanding. The narrator, responding to a solicitation that remains unspecified in the first pages of the text, begins to tell a kind of autobiographical story whose possibility is predicated on the light: "I am not blind, I see the world and that is my extraordinary good fortune. I see it, this day outside of which there is nothing. Who can take that away from me?" (20) This day, outside of which we are at first told there is nothing, is equally capable of illuminating the formative "paths of youth" as it is of descending and penetrating at a different stage the depths of library books and the "somber spirit" of their meanings. And whatever the initiative to which he is responding, the narrator seems at first perfectly capable of using the day retrospectively to bring these facts to light in his own text and then to reflect on them: "Those I have loved, I have also lost ... I was, however, and almost all the time, extremely happy. That gave me something to reflect on" (20). The surprise is that this

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