Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Observations on Occupation
S. DAVID SPERLINGAs a member of the Tuscaloosa symposium on "Our Academic Contract," I was privileged to be among the first group of scholars to examine the early writings of Paul de Man, including some with identifiable anti-Semitic elements. As the lone outsider—a philologist who works in ancient Semitic languages, Old Testament and early Judaism—among a gathering of distinguished literary theorists and philosophers, I felt obligated to offer my own observations. While I cannot claim expertise in the work under consideration, I hope at least to provide an additional perspective.Paul de Man, by virtue of his Belgian nationality, embodies in himself some of the conflicts which have been a force in Jewish literature from its beginnings. The questions of national identity, and the attitudes of Jews towards foreign powers, occupiers and oppressors have never been resolved fully in Jewish history. At the same time, they are in many ways, the driving forces of Jewish creativity.Reactions to occupation by foreign powers are documented in the Hebrew Bible as early as the eighth century B.C.(Isaiah I:7). The related sense of being an alien in countries where one's ancestors have lived for generations is already witnessed in the Aramaic papyri written by the Jews of Elephantine in Egypt of the fifth century B.C.and continues unabated thereafter. Several of de Man's early pieces recall a spirit markedly similar to these ancient Jewish texts.The review, "L'exposition 'Histoire d'Allemagne' au Cinquantenaire, " dated March 16, 1942, presents a rather favorable view of the Germans. One might argue that the description of the Germans as "un peuple dont l'importance est fondamentale pour le destin de l'Europe" is an unenthusiastic statement of resignation to almost two years of German rule. Such a charitable reading, however, would ignore the positive lessons that, according to de Man in the same piece, Belgians could learn from "une source vivante de notre civilisation."I call to the reader's attention an anecdote found in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33b). The story is set in the second century A.D.in the Roman province of Syria-Palestine, formerly, Judea:
Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Jose and Rabbi Simeon were sitting together. Judah, son of proselytes, was sitting with them. Rabbi Judah began the discussion by saying: 'How good are the deeds of this nation (the Romans)! They have set up markets, bridges and bathhouses.' Rabbi Jose remained silent but Rabbi Simeon spoke up and said: 'Everything they have set up, has only been for their own needs. They set up markets to seat prostitutes, bathhouses for their own indulgence, and bridges for the collection of tolls.' Judah, son of

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