Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

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

Paul de Man: A Sketch of Two Generations

LINDSAY WATERS

"The hour of truth, like the hour of death, never arrives on time."

"Words cannot be isolated from the deeds they perform."— Paul de Man

We have much to account for, those of us who have admired Paul de Man. It will not do, I think, to attack journalism for its distortions of the truth. De Man dared to be a journalist in the 40s for Le Soir and again in the 60s for The New York Review of Books and would have done so again if the occasion arose. For him it was part of the intellectual's job to try to convey complex ideas to as general an audience as would receive them, despite the risks of distortion, the need to make deadline. The undistorted truth about his activities in 1941 and 1942 is unpleasant. De Man lent his considerable intellect to the service of a bad cause when he was a young man, and later chose not to make his activities then or his attitudes to them afterwards a matter of public record. It is true, we have learned, that he was exonerated by a military tribunal in Belgium in 1945, and he seems to have told a number of key people along his career path about his past. But he left all the rest of us in ignorance. We feel called upon now to use language of moral judgment—a form of discourse that we will, alas, not learn from his writings. The considerable power evident in them is devoted to making other sorts of distinctions, and he made it a point of his polemic against conventional criticism that literature and morality must be kept separate. In its place, given the right targets, that polemic of his has much to recommend it. Today it is not what seems most helpful. Before we can fully come to terms with what he did, we must find for ourselves a school in moral language of the sort that Primo Levi conducts in his books so that we can understand and articulate how saddened and more that we are because he wrote what he did when he did and then decided that it need not be any more public than the microfilm collection of a major research library. Until we find that school and develop that language we are confronted with our own failure to understand him. One's sense of being let down is due in no small part to one's expectations of the man. He was not my "doctor father"—I was his publisher—but I certainly idealized him and I suspect that many others did as well. It seems today as if people are compelled to vilify him to the exact same degree that they once exalted him, but surely neither response is an appropriate one. In this small essay I want to try to get at one of the roots of the idealization to speculate why it might have occurred at all, because I think the interest in de Man was not shameful in the way that I cannot but feel today his concealment of his past was. But the irony that this paper asks you to consider consists in my guess that without the past he had de Man would not have been half as valuable to many of us as he has proven to be over the last twenty years or so.

Those critical of de Man have for the last few years argued in different ways and to varying degrees that de Man and the "de

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