Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

De Man Ce Soir

HERMAN RAPAPORT

Roberte, her skirt still raised, with one hand seems to be adjusting her girdle or her stockings while with the other, holding them between the tips of her fingers, she tenders Victor a pair of keys which he touches without ever taking: for the two of them seem hanging in suspense in their respective positions. —Pierre Klossowski, Roberte Ce Soir

This essay divides into two parts, the first describing some features of Paul de Man's rhetoric of collaboration during the early I940s, and the second establishing stylistic and ideological 'weak' links between these early pieces and the later work on Hegel's Aesthetics written during the I980s. Although I expect readers to draw their own moral conclusions, I want to say from the outset that, as one might anticipate, de Man's early writings are enormously complex and profoundly ambiguous. The main trajectory of my argument is that precisely where one might expect to find a close identification with Nazism in the young de Man's collaborative writings of the early I940s, one finds instead numerous and subtle resistances which are working in the service of contradicting Nazi ideology and politics. Whereas, in his reflections on Hegel in the I980s one discovers that in the place where one would expect fascism to be of no consequence, de Man makes certain muted, fragmentary links to this ideology even as he enacts features of a collaborationist style reminiscent of the writings he had developed some forty years earlier. That the relations between the later and earlier work are fragmentary and are to be found in the infrastructures of the writing means that only a very crude or reductive reading would claim that de Man's critical writings of his major phase stem from an objectionable political ideology. Yet, only by turning a deaf ear to some of what is said in de Man's late work can one believe that nothing from a disquieting political past survived.


I

Drab, distantly anonymous, and muted, the war time writings of Paul de Man appear to be a collection of uninspired articles evoking ideologies of occupation. It is true that at times the vague ideological rhetoric of the young Paul de Man becomes quite pointed, yet one senses it is rarely the kind of rhetoric that is supposed to move people into action. Rather, it is a lethargic rhetoric fatigued by burdensome thoughts, as if assigned by some outside agency, making reflection difficult. Sometimes even the most basic observations require laborious examination and overly cautious judgments, giving the impression of an analytical scrupulousness that, in fact, is not merited or even wanted in such situations. Sometimes little of significance appears to be said in what looks like intellectual space fillers written for the sake of preserving the appearance of a normal cultural climate. And yet, something is stirring in these articles. Their apparent vacuity upon closer inspection strikes one as by no means unintelligent, and hardly mediocre, as if one were up against a subtle writerly camouflage, perhaps even intellectual subterfuge.

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