Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Mourning Becomes Paul de Man

TOBIN SIEBERS

Mourning always implies a fusion of identities and, necessarily, a confusion over identity. What happens in the event of a double mourning? Given the fusion of identity characteristic of mourning, can such a thing as a double mourning take place? What would it mean to have one's mourning interrupted by mourning?

A process of mourning has now interrupted another mourning. The victims of the holocaust are now mourned in the same place as some mourn for Paul de Man. De Man's youthful anti‐ Semitism has created a structural interference between his own death and the death of six million Jews. The effect is a loss of mourning, a loss of the loss, that is baffling, embarrassing, and pernicious. It is baffling because the figure of de Man risks becoming an antisymbol for his own mourning as well as for the mourning of the Jews. It is embarrassing because the discovery of de Man's collaborationist writings proves a scandal to every critic who has at one time or another admired his work; and this scandal will be the basis of attacks on critical theory itself. It is pernicious, potentially, because the confusion of identities in mourning may now transform de Man into a martyr figure whose insistence makes it more difficult to concentrate on the Jewish victims of the holocaust. In this last scenario, one expects to hear an implicit defense of de Man, suggesting that the theory, the man, or the career are the victims of a youthful anti‐ Semitism. While many people will refuse to defend de Man, quite a few will feel sorry for him. This form of regret represents de Man as his own victim and obstructs our view of the real victims. We mourn de Man instead of the Jews.

Paul de Man died in 1983, but the mourning for him has not ceased. His name continues to appear in various dedications and expressions of regret. The special issue of Yale French Studies on "The Lesson of Paul de Man" reads like an elegy. 1 The opening funeral orations chart each speaker's first or most personal experience with Paul de Man, and they tell, inevitably, of death; or, rather, they tell of Paul de Man engaged in an act of reading inseparable from the act of mourning. Each scene pictures de Man reading a text about death: Peter Brooks shows de Man reading Yeats's "At Algeciras—A Meditation on Death"; Geoffrey Hartman cites de Man's fascination with the "cold mortality" of Shelley; and Jacques Derrida repeats de Man's reading of Mallarmé's "Tombeau de Verlaine" and exposes his own feelings of"la mort dans l'âme." Surely, the occasion of the orations has something to do with these memories. People look for talk of death in the event of death. But I want to explore the possibility that the funeral orations were true to de Man's method of reading: reading in de Man's definition always exposes a rhetoric of mourning. What are the consequences of

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