Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Rigor Vitae
RICHARD RAND
I
Over the past eight months, these questions have come to mind: was Paul de Man, in his wartime writings, pro-Nazi? Was he pro-fascist? Was he pro-German? Was he anti-Semitic? anti‐ French ? pro-Belgian? a propagandist? a collaborator? a résistant? an opportunist? a boy? a nephew? a man?
These questions, which will not, and must not, relent, are bound to go nowhere if they do not touch, from the very first, a place of serious import. Some of us cannot, in the first place, lay any immediate claim to the issues or the stakes of Paul de Man's wartime scene; to ignore this fact is to invent a fantastic solidarity with colleagues and friends whose donné, perhaps, starts elsewhere; it is to ideologize. We owe this quickly forgotten (if obvious) insight to Paul de Man himself, who, in his essay on the poetry of John Keats, observes that "Romantic literature, at its highest moments, encompasses the greatest degree of generality in an experience that never loses contact with the individual self in which it originates" (emphasis added).
When Jacques Derrida calls the last paragraph of "Jews in Present-day Literature" an "indelible wound," he also issues an utterance, a silent appeal, from a place of serious import: "do not delete, do not obscure, do not defuse this word—this delible word 'indelible'—or the notable thing it becomes (the name for the wound I have received)." At first I discounted this phrase and took, as it were, the side of de Man's "youthful errors" : "How," went the thinking, "could Derrida take offense at the crude moves of a foolish and driven young man? To what standards does he hold de Man?" Such a response imagines that Derrida "took offense," though he never, in fact, did any such thing (he received an indelible wound), and it also forgets that the wound is not one but two: the wound of the insult is wounded by the wound of de Man's "mutism." We should also add that the "standards" in play are not, in reality, "standards": they are the Law of unconditional Friendship, authorizing us to share the story of our misdeeds as a guard against harm to the alliance itself. Not to have done so argues in de Man an utterly intransigent decision—not to be moved or touched by the understanding and trust of a singular colleague.
Granted that an alliance can be undone when one of its parties omits to die in advance for the other (see the essay by Derrida on Romeo and Juliet), how was Derrida to reconcile, after the revelation last August of de Man's wartime writings, the Law of Friendship with the alliance thus transgressed? By announcing the event of an "indelible wound", by owning and signing that wound, Derrida made it a lever, a springboard, a

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