The recent revelation that in the early 1940s—at the very moment when Hitler’s conquest of Europe seemed assured—the celebrated literary critic Paul de Man wrote well over one hundred articles and reviews for Belgian newspapers sympathetic to the Nazi cause has sent shock waves through the academic literary community. The response has shuttled between extreme consternation and incredulity, but so far most of the responses from within the academy can be grouped under the general heading of “damage control.” Perhaps the single most extraordinary—not to say egregious—attempt at damage control to date appeared in the March 7 issue of The New Republic. Entitled “Blindness and Insight” after the title of Professor de Man’s influential 1971 collection of essays, this exercise in critical legerdemain was written by Professor de Man’s former colleague, Geoffrey H. Hartman, the Karl Young Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University and himself a still-glittering cynosure of academic fashion.
In order to understand why Professor Hartman should have troubled to provide the readers of The New Republic with this long and elaborate apologia for Paul de Man’s early writings, we must understand that Paul de Man was no ordinary college professor. Having come to the United States as an unknown translator and journalist after the war in 1947, he did graduate work at Harvard in the early Fifties and emerged in the mid-Seventies as one of the most sought-after literary theorists in the country. Indeed, by the time he died in 1983 at the age of sixty-five, Professor de Man was considered by some to be one of the most brilliant critical minds of his generation.
With the possible exception of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida—who deserves credit (if that is the word) for being the chief theoretical architect of deconstruction —Professor de Man did more than anyone to institutionalize the “demythologizing” tenets of deconstruction in the literature departments of American universities. During his years teaching at Johns Hopkins and, later, as Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, he inspired colleagues and graduate students alike to abandon the methods of traditional literary criticism for the allegedly more rigorous approach of deconstruction—an approach characterized by doctrinaire skepticism and infatuation with the thought that language is always so compromised by metaphor and ulterior motives that a text never means what it appears to mean. By now, Professor de Man’s teachings and catch-phrases are parroted in departments of English and comparative literature across the country. While neither the man nor his theories were universally beloved, both inspired fierce devotion from the many partisans of deconstruction, who since his death have been at pains to eulogize his personal virtues as a colleague, teacher, and friend as well as to praise his intellectual gifts and scholarly accomplishments.
That this paragon of chic academic achievement should stand revealed as the author of anti-Semitic articles for pro-Nazi publications at the height of Hitler’s power has been a major embarrassment for his many epigones. The reason is obvious: the frequently heard charge that deconstruction is essentially nihilistic has now acquired existential support of the most damaging kind. Not that those early anti-Semitic articles exactly prove that deconstruction is nihilistic; but it is a rum thing when the patron saint of a literary movement that has so arrogantly proclaimed itself a champion of freedom is brutally exposed as having trafficked with a political force whose very essence was the denial of freedom.
Any detailed assessment of Professor de Man’s early career must await publication of the relevant documents. At the moment only a handful of excerpts from his journalistic activities in the Forties are circulating. This lack is due to be at least partially remedied this spring when an English translation of his early articles in Flemish, together with the text of his numerous articles in French, is scheduled to appear with notes and commentary in a special issue of The Oxford Literary Review. But already it is clear that whatever remorse or chagrin Professor de Man’s admirers experienced has been completely overshadowed by a concerted effort at creative exculpation—that is to say, at damage control.
Judging by the flurry of articles and testimonials that have appeared to date, the exercise proceeds roughly as follows: 1) Yes, it’s regrettable that Paul de Man wrote those articles, but after all, he was very young at the time, only in his early twenties: youth is impetuous and often blinded by romantic enthusiasms. 2) It’s unfortunate that the prominent newspaper Le Soir, where the majority of his early journalistic efforts appeared, should have been openly collaborating with the Nazi line—still, de Man was ambitious and naturally seized the opportunity to write for the prestigious paper; besides, only a few of his articles were explicitly anti-Semitic: most were simply reviews of current cultural events. 3) It’s true that he wondered in an article that appeared in March, 1941 (“The Jews in Contemporary Literature”) whether Jews “polluted” modern literature, and that he envisioned the establishment of a Jewish colony “isolated from Europe”; we must remember, however, that this was not as vicious as much anti-Semitic writing circulating at the time and that, as far as we know now, he stopped writing for Le Soir at the end of 1942, before people knew about the Nazi death camps. 4) While it’s lamentable that he never acknowledged his deeds—that he went so far as to claim on at least one occasion that he had been part of the “Belgian resistance” to the Nazis during the War—perhaps his difficulty in coming to terms with his own past helps explain his tough-minded resistance to the bewitchments of language later in life . . .
But, still, besides, however. . . The qualifications proceed to infinity, almost transforming guilt into innocence, or at least so numbing the mind that the distinction between guilt and innocence begins to blur— begins, in good deconstructionist fashion, to seem merely linguistic, merely rhetorical, a matter utterly divorced from the demands of moral judgment.
“Strategy” is a word that academic literary critics like to use these days to describe their work—no graduate student or assistant professor merely reads books anymore, he engages in “strategies of textual interpretation”—and it is safe to predict that much effort will be expended constructing strategies to exonerate Professor de Man. Professor Hartman’s own strategic contribution is surely one of the most troubling efforts that has yet appeared. Almost everything about his article must give us pause: its place of publication, the identity of its author, and not least its content and implications. For example, what does it mean that The New Republic—a journal that under its current editorship has made such a show of castigating anti-Semitism and supporting Jewish causes—should publish an essay that coyly fudges the significance of Professor de Man’s collaborationist articles by re-interpreting them from the perspective of his later deconstructionist writings? What does it mean that this task should have been undertaken by Geoffrey Hartman? Certainly, one could hardly ask for a better pedigree for the job of moral damage control that Professor Hartman undertook in this article: in addition to his regular academic appointment, he is also an advisory committee member of the Judaic Studies Program at Yale as well as an advisor to the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at the Yale library. But what does it mean that this man who fled Germany as a child in the late Thirties because (as he put it in a 1985 interview) “of the persecution of the Jews” should now devote his considerable rhetorical skills to arguing that “in the light of what we now know, however, [de Man’s] work appears more and more as a deepening reflection on the rhetoric of totalitarianism”? And finally, what does it tell us about the current state of contemporary literary criticism that one of its most distinguished practitioners should be so enthralled with the tenets of deconstruction that he should blithely distill one of this century’s most rebarbative historical realities into an example of “linguistic pathos”?
Professor Hartman devotes the first third of his article to a more or less straightforward presentation of the facts, so far as they are known, of Professor de Man’s early journalistic career. His account, I believe, is essentially accurate. But his tone—sorrowful rather than outraged—is decidedly exculpatory, and he does everything he can to mitigate the offense. For example, he speaks of “an anti-Semitic piece” and the “one” article that “engaged explicitly with the ideology of anti-Semitism.” (My emphasis.) Again, we shall have to wait until Professor de Man’s articles are published before deciding on Professor Hartman’s adamant use of the singular. But suppose he is correct and only one article “engaged explicitly with the ideology of anti-Semitism”—that is, was blatantly anti-Semitic: that still says nothing about those scores of other articles that, simply by virtue of appearing in Le Soir in 1940, 1941, and 1942, implicitly condoned the Nazis’ more explicit brand of anti-Semitism, as well as the policies and programs that were instituted on its behalf.
Professor Hartman admits that his late colleague’s “formulations” “show all the marks, and the dangerous implications, of identifying Jews as an alien and unhealthy presence in Western civilization.” He admits, too, that given the times, his writings were “more than a theoretical expression of anti-Semitism.” (Meaning, perhaps, that a merely “theoretical” expression of anti-Semitism isn’t such a bad thing?) What he nowhere acknowledges is the explicit relation those writings bore to the regnant political force of the Nazis. Instead, his basic tack is to console us with the thought that Professor de Man did not behave as badly as he might have done. It is true that he pondered the creation of a “Jewish colony isolated from Europe,” but he did not demand the extermination of the Jews; he did hail the rise of National Socialism as the “definite emancipation of a people called upon to exercise, in its turn, a hegemony in Europe,” but, according to Professor Hartman, his “relation to fascist ideology was not a simple matter.” Moreover, Professor Hartman assures us that, “by the terrible standards of the day,” an article like “The Jews in Contemporary Literature” was not really “vulgar anti-Semitic writing” and that it “stands out [from the other collaborationist writings, including those of his uncle, Henri de Man] by its refusal to engage directly with political matters.” The idea is, I suppose, that simply not descending to the vicious racial slurs of a Goebbels merits some sort of commendation.
There is something extraordinarily depressing about the spectacle of a scholar of Professor Hartman’s distinction and personal history struggling to find extenuating circumstances for writings undertaken on behalf of an ideology and a political movement that were bent on his own destruction. But somehow even more depressing is the way in which Professor Hartman has chosen to go about his task. For where the first third of his article provides us with an overview of Professor de Man’s collaborationist writings, the balance of the piece attempts to rehabilitate Professor de Man by viewing those writings through the lens of deconstruction. The result is a sterling—if not a Sterling Professor’s—example of vindication through obfuscation.
Perhaps out of deference to the gravity of the subject, Professor Hartman forbears to indulge his penchant for elaborate, punning word-play in this article. But as in his other critical writings from the past decade or so, he proceeds not so much by argument as by a maddeningly imprecise display of verbal arabesques. Not surprisingly, he begins by defending deconstruction against the charges of its enemies. “Deconstruction is neither nihilistic nor cynical,” he writes,
when it questions whether there exists an arena for testing ideas other than the uncontrollable arena of activist politics; or when it demonstrates that philosophy and literature express the impasse from which ideas spring, as well as those ideas themselves .... What is neglected by de Man’s critics, who are in danger of reducing all to biography again, is the intellectual power in his later work, the sheer power of critique, whatever its source, that he deploys against the claims of philosophy and theory.
Leaving the particulars of this passage to one side, how does it answer the charge of nihilism or cynicism? Does it provide us with anything more than an unsupported assertion? And as for the vaunted “intellectual power” of de Man’s later work, of what does it really consist? Confining ourselves to Professor Hartman’s own examples, we learn that “according to de Man, we are always encountering epistemological instabilities, the incompatibility or disjunction between meaning and intent, or between what is stated and the rhetoric or mode of stating it.” But this is an insight that any well-educated high school student should have when reflecting for the first time on the way language works. Professor Hartman is certainly correct when he observes that
those previously suspicious of deconstruction have seized on the revelations. Their sense of deconstruction as morally unsound and politically evasive seems to stand confirmed. They condemn it as untrustworthy because it seeks to avert the reality, and therefore the culpability, of error. That is how they interpret deconstruction’s emphasis on the indeterminacy of meaning, and on the complexity of a medium that seems to “speak” us [sic] instead of submitting fully to our control.
"Such a judgment is superficial,” Professor Hartman assures us, “and divorces deconstruction from its context in the history of philosophy.” Really? To begin with, one might observe that one need hardly be a deconstructionist to agree that language refuses to submit “fully to our control.” In fact, does anyone who has given language a moment’s thought believe that it does? Again, Professor Hartman is right that those critical of deconstruction take exception to its “emphasis on the indeterminacy of meaning.” But that of course is the central question: is meaning as expressed in language so indeterminate that we are unable reliably to decipher it? What about the assertion that meaning is indeterminate? Would Professor Hartman say that the meaning of that statement, too, is indeterminate? Like so many deconstructionists, Professor Hartman has rather a dualistic view of the matter. He assumes that if one has not abandoned the belief in the intelligibility of language and adopted the skepticism that deconstruction preaches, one must be a kind of cartoon Cartesian, holding that language is a perfectly transparent medium that renders our thoughts about the world without loss or ambiguity. The possibility of a middle ground between nihilistic skepticism and naïve belief never seems to occur to him.
And as for deconstruction’s “context in the history of philosophy"—well, given Professor Hartman’s intractable hostility to anything resembling philosophical analysis, I'm sure it would be amusing to hear him enlighten us about that. As it is, we must be content with his suggestion that deconstruction takes up “the age-old problem” of the relation of language and meaning and his cryptic allusion to the German neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Cassirer, we are told, “observed that while language wished to overcome ‘the curse of mediacy,’ it was itself part of the problem it tried to resolve.”
Now I doubt that Professor Hartman could have picked a less appropriate figure than Ernst Cassirer to support his brief for deconstruction. Cassirer, another refugee from Hitler’s Reich, would be rolling over in his grave if he knew his name was invoked to support the radically skeptical contentions of deconstruction. Reviewing the intellectual climate of the Teens and early Twenties, the philosopher admonished in the foreword to The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, his magnum opus, that “at times, language seemed to be becoming the principal weapon of skepticism rather than a vehicle of philosophical knowledge”—a remark that stands up rather well as a characterization of deconstruction avant la lettre. As he put it later in the same volume, “skepticism seeks to expose the nullity of knowledge and language—but what it ultimately demonstrates is the nullity of the standard by which it measures them.” That is to say, skepticism exposes the nullity of the standard of absolute transparency, the standard that deconstructionists falsely impute to anyone who continues to believe in the possibility of stable meanings and the intelligibility of language.
But the point is that philosophical analysis is little more than intellectual window dressing for Professor Hartman. In fact, given his view of language, it is necessarily little more than intellectual window dressing for the simple reason that he denies the power of language to communicate effectively through concepts. For Professor Hartman, indeed, “concept” is a highly suspect term, implying as it does that thought can meaningfully transcend the particularities of language and rhetoric. This suspicion of philosophy and of the cogency of rational analysis is one of the chief reasons that he values deconstruction so highly. For deconstruction provides a handy way of appearing to transform philosophy into a species of literature, reducing concepts to so many rhetorical “tropes” and viewing the whole notion of truth as an unfortunate fictional construct.
It is in this sense that Professor Hartman can offer deconstruction as a defender of the imagination and literature against the supposedly unimaginative depredations of philosophy and science. “Deconstruction is,” he explains,
a defense of literature. It shows, by close reading, (1) that there are no dead metaphors, (2) that literature is often more self-aware than those who attack it, (3) that literary texts contain significant tensions that can be disclosed, but not resolved, by analysis. Any mode of analysis, therefore, that sees the text as an organic unity, or uses it for a totalizing purpose (as when the right or the left speaks for history), is blind, and the text itself will subvert or “deconstruct” such closures.
There is a great deal that one might say about this passage, which blends the highly questionable with the portentously trite. The idea that there are no dead metaphors can be refuted by anyone who ever uttered the phrase “that depends” and bothered to consider its etymology; I'm not sure what it means to speak of literature itself as being “more self-aware than those who attack it,” but if Professor Hartman is suggesting that many who attack literature are philistines, who would disagree? And as for the contention that “literary texts contain significant tensions that can be disclosed, but not resolved, by analysis,” here I should think it all depends on what he means by “resolved.” In one sense, certainly, it is a statement with which scarcely a single literate individual would disagree. But the real point of this passage is that deconstruction is superior to other modes of interpretation because it provides especially “close readings” of texts, readings that reveal nasty things like the “totalizing” impulses of authors, i.e., their desire for unity and sense.
But one wonders: is deconstruction better at “close reading” than traditional literary analysis? Let us consider an example of close reading that Professor Hartman cites in his apologia for Professor de Man.
It is indeed hard to associate the young journalist (aged 21) with the distinguished theorist (aged 47) who wrote so critically, and so effectively, against Husserl’s The Crisis of European Humanity and Philosophy. De Man accused Husserl of blindly privileging Western civilization (“European supremacy”) at the very time (1935) that Europe “was about to destroy itself as center in the name of an unwarranted claim to be the center.” But of de Man, too, it can now be said that “as a European it seems that [he] escaped from the necessary self-criticism that is prior to all philosophical truth about the self.”
First of all, one might ask, why did Professor Hartman bother to introduce Professor de Man’s discussion of this late lecture by the philosopher Edmund Husserl? Surely one reason is that it gives him the opportunity to speak of “blindly privileging Western civilization,” a charge that is as common (one might almost say necessary) among fashionable academics these days as the diction is deplorable. But then how “effective” is Professor de Man’s own criticism? It is odd, to say the least, that he should charge Husserl with illegitimately “privileging” Western civilization when the main point of the lecture in question was to criticize the “mistaken rationalism” or “objectivism” that in Husserl’s view had precipitated a major crisis in Western values —a crisis that he could see unfolding around him in 1935 with the ascension of Hitler and institution of Nazi ideas throughout German society. (Indeed, Husserl, as a Jew, was just then being ostracized from the academic community at Freiburg where he had taught for many years.)
One notes, too, that in the essay to which Professor Hartman refers, Professor de Man archly remarks that “why this geographical expansion [of philosophical reflection] should have chosen to stop, once and forever, at the Atlantic Ocean and the Caucasus, Husserl does not say.” But Husserl does not say for the simple reason that he never suggests that the spirit of scientific rationality that he discusses in “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man” (as the lecture is usually translated) is bounded “once and forever” by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caucasus. Quite the contrary. Near the beginning of the lecture, he notes that in invoking the spiritual image of Europe he “does not mean Europe geographically, as it appears on maps, as though European man were to be in this way confined to the circle of those who live in this territory. In the spiritual sense it is clear that to Europe belong the English dominions, the United States, etc., but not, however, the Eskimos or Indians of the country fairs, or the Gypsies .. . .” It is a small point, to be sure, but it gives one a good indication of the kind of “close reading” one can expect from our premier deconstructionists.
Of course, Professor Hartman did not treat the readers of The New Republic to the longueurs of deconstruction simply to provide them with another example of the theory at work. His exposition of the putative virtues of deconstruction was part and parcel of his effort at reconstructing Professor de Man in the face of his early journalistic career. “The discovery of these early articles must make a difference in the way we read the later de Man,” Professor Hartman admits.
The new disclosures imbed a biographical fact in our consciousness, a fact that tends to devour all other considerations; it does not spare the later achievement, whose intellectual power we continue to feel. One crucial and hurtful problem is that de Man did not address his past. We do not have his thoughts. Did he avoid confession . . . and instead work out his totalitarian temptations in a purely intellectual and impersonal manner?
Leaving aside the euphemistic circumlocutions (“imbed a biographical fact in our consciousness,” etc.), we may begin by considering the subterfuge contained in Professor Hartman’s concluding question—as if the issue were “working out” a “totalitarian temptation.” More basically, one might ask: how does Professor Hartman handle the troubling fact that his subject never owned up to his past? Deconstructively, of course. “It is possible to link the intellectual strength of the later work to what is excluded by it, to what, in surging back, threatens to diminish its authority .... But the postwar writing may constitute an avowal of error, a kind of repudiation in its very methodology of a philosophy of reading.”
What this jewel of opacity would appear to mean is that the critical power of deconstruction provides Professor de Man with an intellectually sophisticated substitute for any mere straightforward “avowal of error.” The implication is that in the intellectual empyrean inhabited by Professors de Man, Hartman, and company, one can dispense with anything so pedestrian as a frank admission of guilt; but what this passage really reveals is how the deconstructionist habit of intellectualizing reality results in a deviousness that willingly forsakes the most basic moral distinctions in its pursuit of ever more clever rhetorical constructs. As Professor Hartman explains it, “Even to say, quite simply, ‘I was young, I made a mistake, I’ve changed my mind’ remains blind if it overlooks the narrative shape of this or any confession.” “Narrative shape”? Reading Professor Hartman’s exegesis, it is easy to forget that we are not talking about Keats’s “To Autumn” but about a collection of reviews and articles that appeared in pro-Nazi publications. To invoke the “narrative shape” of confession is not to render the issue any clearer or more morally compelling, but merely to insinuate a new element of intellectualized mendacity into the discussion.
And this—the application of ever more sophistical layers of intellectualized mendacity—is what is finally most troubling about Professor Hartman’s essay. While he began with Paul de Man’s numerous contributions to collaborationist newspapers, by his second or third page Professor Hartman has transformed the entire discussion into a debate about language. “De Man always asks us to look beyond natural experience or its mimesis to a specifically linguistic dilemma. He claims that the relation between meaning and language is not in our subjective control, perhaps not even human.” The idea being—what? That since we are to look beyond “natural experience” to a “linguistic dilemma,” and since language is reputedly not under our control, we are not therefore responsible for the blunders and evil we perpetrate in the realm of “natural experience”? Does it mean that we are henceforth relieved of the obligation to speak and write straightforwardly about such blunders?
In order to get the full flavor of Professor Hartman’s style of thought, it is worth quoting his exposition at some length. “There is no compensation for the failure of action in the perfection of art,” he writes, musing on the relation between art and action in Professor de Man’s later writings.
The fields of critical philosophy, literary theory, and history have an interlinguistic, not an extralinguistic, correlative; they are secondary in relation to the original, which is itself a previous text. They reveal an essential failure of disarticulation, which was already there in the original. “They kill the original, by discovering that the original was already dead. They read the original from the perspective of pure language [reine Sprache], a language that would be entirely freed of the illusion of meaning.”
“Interlinguistic,” you understand, not “extralinguistic”: in other words, in Professor Hartman’s view, neither philosophy nor literary theory nor even history refers to the real world (i.e., has an “extralinguistic correlative”). How comforting to know that the atrocities we read about are merely literary phenomena, referring not to the sufferings of real people, real “originals,” but only to “a previous text”!
Professor Hartman goes on to tell us that
[t]his talk of killing the original, and of essential failure, is strong stuff. Knowing today about the writings of the young de Man, it is not possible to evade them as merely a biographical reference point: the early writing is an “original” to which the later writing reacts. De Man’s method of reading implies that the relation between late and early is interlinguistic only, that the position he had abandoned, one that proved to be a failure and perhaps culpably blind, is not to be used to explain his eventual method; but the biographical disclosure may hurt de Man’s intelligibility. Though his method insists on excluding the biographical (“extralinguistic”) reference, I do not believe that we can read him without identifying the “original” in his case as the mediated and compromised idiom of his early, journalistic writings. . . . The earlier self is not off the hook, but the emphasis shifts to the way language operates. The later self acknowledges an error, yet it does not attribute it to an earlier self . . . because that would perpetuate its blindness to the linguistic nature of the predicament.
“The linguistic nature of the predicament”? This is the culmination of Professor Hartman’s extraordinary display? What does it mean to describe Professor de Man’s “predicament” as “linguistic”? If nothing else, it is to suggest that the historical reality of his involvement with Le Soir and the other fascist papers was at bottom a kind of linguistic, not a moral, lapse. And note, too, Professor Hartman’s conjecture that “the biographical disclosure may hurt de Man’s intelligibility,” when what is at stake is not his “intelligibility” (which remains untouched by the disclosure of his early writings) but his character. It is symptomatic of the real blindness of deconstruction that it should fail to have any insight whatsoever into this fundamental distinction.
Professor Hartman concludes his essay with the assertion that “de Man’s critique of every tendency to totalize literature or language, to see unity where there is no unity, looks like a belated, but still powerful, act of conscience.” The idea we are asked to accept in this statement is that by practicing literary deconstruction Professor de Man effectively came to terms with his journalistic service to a Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism. Not only does this defy our credulity, but to my mind Professor Hartman’s claim, as well as the editorial decision to publish it, is a stunningly blunt failure of moral and intellectual conscience.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 9, on page 36
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