Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

De Man and Guilt

ALLAN STOEKL

I am not given to retrospective self-examination and mercifully forget what I have written with the same alacrity I forget bad movies-although, as with bad movies, certain scenes or phrases return at times to embarrass and haunt me like a guilty conscience.—de Man, "Foreword to Revised, Second Edition of Blindness and Insight."

So it was the fact that Sartre wrote essays like L'Imaginaire, L'Etre et le néant, which were technical philosophical books, while at the same time being a literary critic, at the same time being somebody who expressed strong opinions on political matters—that somewhat bicephalic dissent of the philosopher—had a very strong attraction; I don't think anybody of my generation ever got over that. We all somehow would like to be like that: it takes about a whole life to get over this notion [ ... ]—de Man, "Interview with Stefano Rosso," in The Resistance to Theory

The knowledge of radical innocence also performs the harshest mutilations.—de Man, chapter 12 ("Excuses"), Allegories of Reading

There are two types of readings of Paul de Man's Le Soir articles that should be, I think, avoided. The first is what I would call a naive Sartrian reading, which attempts to present all of de Man's later work as inherently "reactionary" because, at the age of 21 and 22, he wrote newspaper articles, in a German funded and controlled paper, that were clearly sympathetic to the changes taking place in the "revolutionary epoch" (as he calls it) 1 in which he was living. In this sure to be played out scenario, Sartre gets his revenge on de Man; the really important de Manian writings will not be read, but, as so often happens, de Man's "life decision" will be examined, his personal "choice" will be evaluated, and no doubt condemned. That the kind of analysis elaborated in Allegories of Reading does not lend itself easily (or at all) to use by ethicists, estheticians, hermeneuts or formalists will be attributed to the fact that de Man all along was only "a fascist." Above all, the argument will be put forward that his apparent elimination, for example at the end of Allegories of Reading, of the possibility of a morally responsible subjectivity is proof, at best, of"moral idiocy," and, at worst, a simple refusal to come to terms with his own guilt. 2 The complexities of the text will be ignored, while biographical evidence will be sifted; moral evaluation will be issued, both of de Man "himself," and of"deconstruction." One need only read Sartre's biography of Baudelaire (or Genet, Mallarmé, Flaubert) to see where this kind of approach leads. The second tactic, equally misguided, and carried out with an equally clear conscience, will attempt "rhetorical readings" of certain of the 1941-42 articles, no doubt to show that they too can be "deconstructed," that de Man is not writing about the decadence of French culture, the role of the Jews in post-WW I literature, 3 the "necessity" of the replacement of prewar individualism with the recognition of the tasks to be carried out in a German-occupied "postwar" Europe—he is "really" writing only about language itself, and the problems of rhetoric that go along with it. This kind of approach—which many critics affirm when it is used by de Man himself in an analysis of, say, Rousseau's Social Contract—seems insufficient when we are talking about a writing practice that was, one could argue, inseparable from a larger policy of the intellectual "pacification" of a conquered, but (from the Nazi point of view) not entirely trustworthy, people. 4

Are we, as readers of de Man, to be caught between these two poles, torn between a simplistic moral or political judgment of the young de Man and an uncritical acceptance of the later de Man's theory? How, in other words, can one talk about the seemingly inevitable political and social responsibility of the engaged intellectual (for this is what de Man was in 1941-42, and what he fervently resisted later), or of the thinker in gen

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