The Putative Significance of Paul de Man

It is a busy time of year and I should not be blogging at all, but I can’t resist correcting a few mistaken impressions in a mysteriously widely praised article by Johnathan Freedman on Evelyn Barish’s biography The Double Life of Paul de Man.

While these things can never be proven, I have the strong feeling that most of the people who have shown their enthusiasm for the aforementioned have either never read de Man or have done so nominally, in the sense that de Man’s words have passed before their eyes, most likely in the eighties or nineties, either in a university course or out of a sense of duty related to an association with university people at a time when the ability to cough up the assorted shibboleths that marked one as familiar with “deconstructionism” was seen as an essential complement to the pretense of intellectual seriousness. While the thrust of many pieces about Barish’s book, and certainly of Freedman’s, is that we should be paying attention to de Man’s work and not to his life, neither he nor Louis Menand, who are the critics who seem most defensive of the Belgian deconstructionist in this so-called debate, seem to have a particularly rigorous idea of what de Man thought. The former cites de Man’s mission as having been:

an attempt to bring the demystifying essence of the philological perspective and close attention to literary detail inherent in the explication tradition together as a critical method.

This seems to me a fancy way of saying “to read a text closely and try not to be wrong about it by paying attention to what the words mean and what the sources of the text are,” which every reader must believe, more or less, that he is doing. Freedman distances both himself and de Man from deconstructionism, averring that de Man’s real importance lies in his role as

…as the conduit for a whole wave of European thought into the United States at the moment when the American academy had not yet discovered it. By this I don’t mean deconstruction, which he was indeed pivotal but not entirely unique in introducing into the American academy in the 1970s; I mean earlier and more than that the high European tradition of comparative philology one associates with Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer, with the French tradition of explication de texte, and with the philosophy of Nietzsche and Heidegger…

It seems to me rather more likely that Auerbach and Spitzer, both of whom moved to America after the Second World War, taught for more than a decade at such prestigious universities as Princeton and Johns Hopkins, and published essays in English, may have been their own conduits, while Nietzsche had been widely known since the twenties and Heidegger’s major works began to be translated in the early 1960s.

Menand steps a little deeper into the pool with his recapitulation of a section of Allegories of Reading that manages remarkably to be both concise and bloated at the same time:

The simplest and best-known illustration of the de Manian method involves the line that ends Yeats’s poem “Among School Children”: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” We naturally read that question rhetorically, to mean “We cannot know the difference.” But, de Man points out, in “Semiology and Rhetoric,” grammatically the sentence is a question, and it means “Please tell me, how can I know the difference?” The meanings are contradictory, but there is nothing in “what the text really says” that tells us which one is correct.

This observation doesn’t debunk the poem, or prove that language is “inherently false,” or reduce Yeats to incoherence. On the contrary, it complicates lines that are usually read as a celebration of Romantic symbolism, lines about the union of sign and referent, word and thing, and turns the poem into a reflection on its own (to use a de Manian phrase) aesthetic ideology.

This is in fact not a fallow theoretical technique: the posture of negatives to be contrasted to the positive elements of a poem, rather like the triangulation used by the cartographer Gemma Frisius to estimate the location of faraway places, has yielded great fruit in the hands of earnest thinkers about literature; Peter Szondi on Celan comes immediately to mind. And yet, while acknowledging the limits of my own imagination and of imagination in general, I find it hard to believe that anyone not subject as a rule to seduction by balderdash would be willing to endorse the above interpretation as a significant enlargement upon what one might glean from Yeats’s poem at first reading.

I have no interest in defending the biography, which has been criticized for more substantive reasons, such as a lack of scholarly rigor. But I don’t believe any of this really has to do with de Man, anymore than the ostentatious outrage over Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, which none of the people who have written about them have even read. Instead, de Man seems to serve as a Heidegger Lite for those who, from motives utterly unclear to me, find entertainment or validation in the continual wheeling-out of dust-covered arguments about the significance of the life to the work. Naturally the thought of a person’s life being irrelevant to his work is as stupid as that of the roots of a flower being irrelevant to its petals; I doubt anyone who has seriously studied any literary figure can resist the biographical temptation entirely, and I know of no evidence that to do so would be well-advised; and the thought that Josef Frank’s ideas about Dostoevsky or Edmund White’s about Jean Genet are a misguided distortion based on an epistemological error is beneath risible.

Freedman’s bugbear here is what is called “digital humanities,” an ill-defined thing that seems bent on sucking the life out of reading while rendering paltry insights that critics enamored of “close reading” can already come up with using their intuition. This is little more than noise. While “digital humanities” has indeed become a buzzword, the fault lies less with any claims of the advocated thereof, who indeed appear to be quite scarce, and more with the need on the part of mass media to come up with digestible labels that permit people to feign interest in matters they are not really interested in. Freedman aims his sights on Franco Moretti, a for-some-reason controversial figure whose computer-aided research into reading habits has yielded interesting insights about the course of the development of the novel without extinguishing the careers of those whose work differs from his own or taking away an ounce of the pleasure and stimulation that comes along with reading literature. One has the inkling that Freedman has probably not read Moretti, and that he ahs failed to mention the fascinating work done in computer-assisted author-attribution by Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney, for example, because they haven’t been recently written up in the New Yorker.

No piece on the alleged import of a literary or artistic figure would be complete without bittersweet, mock-ominous closing words, and Freedman does not disappoint, delivering the sort of world-weary plea that recalls, more than anything, the lamentations once offered in defense of the “Western Canon” that figures like de Man were supposed to have deconstructed into eternal infamy:

Blindness, in other words, remains insight; insight blindness, and as much as I am loath to admit it, the lesson of reading this fascinating but deeply flawed book at the moment of digital humanities is to remind us that, whatever kind of scoundrel de Man may have been in his youth, we need the deconstruction he advocated in his maturity more than ever.


Johnathan Freedoman on Paul de Man in the LARB

Louis Menand on Paul de Man in the New Yorker

Peter Brooks on Paul de Man in the NYRB

Susan Ruben Suleiman on Paul de Man in the New York Times