Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Determinations: Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

MICHAEL SPRINKER

Like many of the contributors to the present volume, I came to know and admire Paul de Man personally. Long before I saw or met him, I had been impressed by the intellectual rigor and the passion for the truth exhibited in essays like "The Rhetoric of Temporality" and those collected in Blindness and Insight. I well remember my first encounter with the person behind the words. I was greatly taken aback by the charm and urbanity of his manner, and above all at the gentle amusement he showed in discussing the sexual overtones in Locke's theory of metaphor. This tension between the severity of de Man's writing, and the disarming wit and humor of the person, is not easily resolved, as the testimony of former students and colleagues attests. In my experience of him, de Man could be by turns tough and unyielding, or tender and encouraging. Not an easy man to figure out, I often thought. But it never surprised me that he could inspire in equal measure adulation and mistrust or fear. What did sometimes surprise me was that his friends were scarcely ever wary of him, since he could be quite as bitingly sarcastic with them, as ruthless in exposing the weakness in their speech and thought, as with any opponent.

In the spirit of de Man's own critical practice, we are called upon to exercise our most severe judgment in examining the writings of our friends. This is not to say that one should rush to join the chorus of detractors who now feel licensed to lodge the most outrageous charges against de Man's later writings and against deconstruction in general. The links between de Man's youthful journalism—and it was just that; he was not yet twenty-three when he resigned from Le Soir in November I942—and his mature theoretical work are, in the present state of scholarship and criticism, tentative at best. It may be possible to construct a plausible itinerary leading from his wartime writings to the essays written during the I960s and ultimately to the final chapters of Allegories of Reading. But the long interpretive labor required for such an undertaking has to date never been performed—least of all by de Man's leading critics. My task here is a more humble and limited one: to wit, to assess the political determinations that formed the immediate context of de Man's wartime writings and to interpret the significance of these latter in the light of the historical situation that produced them. My contribution to this debate is therefore less concerned with the moral indictment or exculpation of Paul de Man than with understanding the political configuration of which he was at this period one symptom. The emphasis in what follows falls more on the forces and circumstances that produced Paul de Man than on what he himself wrote or thought. To speak in a jargon for which de Man had at most grudging (although near the end of his life, growing) respect,

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