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Modernist Culture, the Cunning of History, and Paul De Man

ISSUE:  Autumn 1988

When relevations about Paul de Man’s past first came to public attention last December, those on the attack as well as those for the defense found themselves turning to his influential Allegories of Reading (1979) in an effort to “read” de Man himself. Not surprisingly, what they found there was hardly conclusive:

All that will be represented in such an allegory will deflect from the act of reading and block access to its understanding. The allegory of reading narrates the impossibility of reading. . . . Everything in this novel signifies something other than what it represents, be it consciousness, politics, or art.

Granted, de Man was talking about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but he might as easily have been speaking to the contradictory, often elusive signifiers of his own life. For those writing in the popular press, the fact that de Man had contributed articles to collaborationist Belgian newspapers was disturbing enough; that his cultural pronouncements also included anti-Semitic echoes of the Nazi party line was devastating. But how to “read” this de Man in the context of the Yale professor many had come to know as an influential theoretician and teacher, how to conjoin signifiers with the signified remains a perplexing question. Allegories of indirection may well be the best way to proceed, given what we now know about de Man himself and what he has taught us about the “impossibility of reading.”


New York City’s West 47th Street is famous for its jewelry, its diamonds, and the cut-rate prices a savvy shopper can pick up on both. But the block between Broadway and Seventh Avenue—known as the Diamond Market—offers browsers more than large selections and discounted prices; those with a taste for the exotic will find glatt kosher food (available in everything from sit-down restaurants, three flights up, to rolling carts packed at the curbside) and, of course, the black-garbed Hassidic Jews who give the area its curious mixture of 18th-century Poland and fast-paced, competitive America.

To be sure, the Big Apple has blocks like this by the hundreds, places where disparate languages and ethnic lifestyles have learned—sometimes slowly, often reluctantly—to coexist. New Yorkers kvetch about cabbies who fracture the Mayor’s English or about the high costs in time and money of special interest politics, but which of them would prefer the homogenized life readily available in, say, Sioux City, Iowa? Where would one go for sushi? for Thai? for a four-inch pastrami sandwich?

I belabor this point because New York City is a study in contradictions that have lived next to each for so long that the natives hardly notice. Take the block of West 47th Street I began with. True, that is where to go if you’re in the market for a two-carat diamond or a cameo brooch. But it’s also the block where one can find the Gotham Book Mart. For some 60 years, those looking for out-of-print modernist classics—a copy of, say, “Hommage à Proust” (1923) or back issues of transition— are likely to find them, squirreled away in one of its bulging shelves. The Gotham Book Mart’s signboard proudly announces, WISE MEN FISH HERE, and, indeed, many do: authors, established and struggling; tenured professors and gypsy scholars; and, of course, students of all ages and condition.

What I want to explore in this essay, however, are not the curious juxtapositions that have become as much a part of city life as asphalt and grid lock, but, rather, the ways in such conjunctions are becoming increasingly rare as the separation between quotidian life and intellectual design grows ever wider. I mean to talk, first, about general tendencies in modernist writers, and then to fix upon the career of Paul de Man as an example of History’s terrible cunning and its high moral cost. I begin with a section from Robert Boyers’ recent book, After the Avant-Garde:

A number of influential critics argue that literary works do not represent the real world, that they are self-referential sign-systems with encoded meanings. Readers are said to work at these meanings with no sense that anything conclusive is at stake. Whatever may be thought to correspond to experience outside the given text will give itself away as an illusion to which trained readers will be fully resistant. How, after all, can a novel that organizes its material manage to represent what is at best random and intransigently elusive?

Once again, let our signs point back to West 47th Street, where some are spending the afternoon comparison shopping, others are thumbing through an out-of-print collection of T.S. Eliot’s essays, and the ultra-Orthodox are whipping through their afternoon prayers. However, transport these images to the Antwerp of 1941 and you will have a very different story, one that has shocked and deeply divided American academics. I refer, of course, to the cause célèbre surrounding Paul de Man, the influential literary theoretician and, until his death in 1984, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University.

That literary critics have long jousted about which influences, which beliefs, which values, should matter most in establishing cultural hierarchies is hardly a revelation; nor are we surprised when it turns out that our most honored writers reflected what the community of scholars, critics, and reviewers—to say nothing of the society at large—felt was centrally important. When men of letters were comfortable, rather than embarrassed, about cultural standards, literature mattered because it was Life, albeit writ large and in bold, articulate relief. Modernism did much to overturn both the Victorian drawing room and the criticism that generated from its overstaffed armchairs. Virginia Woolf’s famous claim that “On or about December 1910, human character changed” is simply one hyperbolic example among many. Whether it be abstract art or atonal music, theoretical physics or aesthetic theories, the NEW announced itself as series of shocks. No doubt Ms. Woolf had a specific set of cultural circumstances in mind—the death of Edward VII; London’s Post-Impressionist exhibition—but what her playful remark really gets to is the impossibility of an Arnold Bennett rendering the interior life of a Mrs. Brown.

In short, literary modernism made strenuous efforts to disconnect itself from both the Romanticism and the Realism that were its immediate predecessors. Thus is it ever when Influence peers over the shoulder of the anxious, individual talent. But if literary modernists were dedicated to breaking windows so that fresh air might at last come in (one thinks of Whitman, of Lawrence, of Joyce), it is also true that theirs remained a quarrel about what Life was, and how it might be most authentically represented on the printed page. Granted, modernist works were difficult and demanding (indeed, that was one of their identifying characteristics); granted, they often valued stylistic considerations above all others; but, again, this was a response to the chaos, indeed, to the anarchy, of modern life itself. Myth—whether it came dressed in the allusions of Eliot’s Wasteland or as Joyce’s Homeric Dublin on 16 June 1904—provided the necessary structures that allowed one to see modern life both steady and whole.

Thus far so good. Unfortunately, the revolutionary zeal of many literary modernists often stood foursquare against what Yeats called “the filthy democratic tide,” and all too often took a dangerous tilt toward the political Right. “Common readers” became synonymous with the Great Unwashed, with all those who looked forward to what-comes-next, and to an omniscient author who was not timid about telling Dear Readers what it meant. What for some remained a snobbish elitism became for others a priestly, totalitarian mission.

In our country, Whitman sounded his barbaric yawp on behalf of a democratic populism so broadly based that one is hard pressed to imagine who might stand outside its mighty umbrella. He was, after all, the poet of women as well as men, of blacks as well as whites, of the Jew as well as the gentile, of farmers as well as city folk, of the downtrodden as well as the rich. His European counterparts felt differently; for them, foreign elements corrupted rather than enriched.

Granted, not all American writers were as egalitarian or as welcoming as Whitman. In the horse race of American literature, one’s place of birth, one’s breeding, one’s alma mater, always counted for a good deal—as the 1,200+ pages of the recent Columbia Literary History of the United States reminds us. There were those, then and now, who tried mightily to write off immigrant populations in a single, excoriating word: threat. Others were more thoughtful about their discomforts, feeling that while the “old orders” which had formed them were, indeed, under siege, the sheer potential of these “huddled masses” was inextricably linked to the larger democratic dream they continued to cherish.

For example, during his 1904 visit to America, the magisterial Henry James found himself overwhelmed by the physical reality of so many Yiddish-speaking immigrants squeezed into New York’s tiny East Side, and Henry Adams—who felt his grip on the levers of American power slipping even more than James did—made these comments about the Washington, D.C. of 1914:

The atmosphere really has become a Jew atmosphere. It is curious and evidently good for some people, but it isolates me. I do not know the language, and my friends are as ignorant as I. We are still in power, after a fashion. Our sway over what we call society is undisputed. We keep Jews far away, and the anti-Jew feeling is quite rabid. We are anti-everything and we are wild up-lifters; yet we somehow seem to be more Jewish every day.

My point, however, is not to call the roll of those American writers who were infected by garden varieties of anti-Semitism, nor is it to argue that every writer from Socrates to Styron be judged by a litmus test administered by the ADL. Rather, I want to concentrate on the implications of literary vision, and especially on the ways in which metaphor contributes to this power. I begin with what once passed for universal wisdom—namely, that in learning to read our best literature, one learned to read oneself. To be sure, one pays attention to a writer’s particulars—to Faulkner’s South or Bellow’s Chicago—and to the human beings one finds there, but the orbits of a literary work always ripple outward, to larger significances, and to the world readers meet when they turn the last page. To claim, as many now do, that literature refers to nothing outside itself, that it is both self-contained and self-referential, is to substitute a set of abstractions for a reader’s experience, for literature’s enormous power, and for. the responsibility that is inextricably attached to both. In this sense, metaphor shares at least some properties with the life it draws its sustenance from and points to—and of these, perhaps the most important is moral consequence. When, for example, Sylvia Plath argues that Daddy is a Nazi and she a Jew, when she imagines German as a language that chuffs her off “like a Jew./A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen,” the effect may be to magnify her psychological pain, to render an Electra complex in the strongest, starkest terms possible, but the hyperbole comes at a certain cost—namely, the trivialization of History. The effect, in a word, is obscene, and ultimately numbing.

Plath’s “Daddy” is, to be sure, an instance of History appropriated to the purely personal, and in that sense it speaks to latter-day Romanticism as one of our heartier perennials. But in our century the more typical situation has been directed toward erasing the “un” in Shelley’s 19th-century claim that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Nearly 40 years ago America’s intellectual community deeply divided over the decision to award Ezra Pound a Bollingen Prize for his Pisan Cantos. To his enduring credit, Karl Shapiro voiced his “No! in thunder” as a Bollingen judge (the only one, by the way, to do so), and others—Clement Greenberg, William Barrett, Irving Howe— argued vigorously that Pound’s anti-Semitism was so incrusted in the fabric of his poetry, so much a part of his aesthetic, that the two were inseparable. Others, schooled in, and committed to, the autonomy of Art, felt that a writer’s politics had no place in a discussion of poetic excellence. The result had the look, even the feel, of an academic debate, albeit one held between clenched teeth. But there was nothing particularly “academic” about lines like the following:

the Yidd is a stimulant, and the goyim are cattle in gt/proportion and go to saleable slaughter with the maximum of docility.

To scan such lines with loving attention to the lilts and nuances of language, to comment about thematic patterns and image clusters is to talk about everything but the painfully obvious and humanly important. Still reefing from the blows dealt to their fellow Jews in the Holocaust, indeed, still reeling from the nightmare of fascism, how could responsible intellectuals keep silence?


The Pound case is, as they say, so much history, but history has a way of repeating itself—always, to be sure, with a difference, and never in the same neatly focused ways. As Marx knew full well, the tragedies of history have a nasty habit of repeating themselves as farce. Recently, more than a hundred pieces of journalism (book reviews, drama and music criticism, cultural speculations, and the like) written in Belgian newspapers during 1941—42 have been discovered and translated into English. That the pieces—like the Flemish and French newspapers in which they first appeared— reflect a general viewpoint that can only be called “collaborationist” is hardly surprising; that a handful of them reflect the blatantly anti-Semitic perspective that has often been a prominent feature of literary modernism is equally predictable. What is shocking, however, is that these mini-essays should turn out to have been written by Paul de Man, one of the principal architects of deconstruction and a man widely revered for his urbanity, his grace, his wide learning, and, above all else, for his views about the indeterminacy of language. As Gerald L. Bruns wrote recently:

[Paul de Man] argues that language is not a logical system for constructing descriptions of an independent reality but a historicized totality of texts—call them philosophy, science, literature, law, religion, literary criticism—within which what gets counted as reality is in a state of constant, interminable, aporetic redescription.

Deconstruction took the world of academic symposia, specialist journals, and rarefied coffee klatches by storm. Indeed, the English Department of Yale University—widely regarded as the Hot Center not only for deconstruction, but also for all things theoretical, densely written, and made originally in France—gained a national visibility that made outsiders jealous and insiders skittish. Those who always had their doubts about the wide net that indeterminacy presumably casts, or who regarded the erudite talk about “texts” as so much philosophical babble, seized upon the de Man relevations as an excuse to bash away at this latest assault on humanistic learning. Deconstruction struck R.W.B. Lewis, professor of American Studies at Yale, as antihistorical: “It encourages skepticism about almost anything in the realm of human experience. That’s one of the things I hold against it.” Others took the occasion to kick critical theorists while they were down. One anonymous wag, referring to the deconstructionist habit of treating all events—including war—as texts, quipped: “Tell that to the Veterans of Foreign Texts.” Unfair, perhaps, but wickedly near the mark, for deconstructionists wrench the universe itself into the realm of the unknown.

In short, no verbal construct—be it a poem or a political manifesto, an ad for Lite beer or Augustine’s Confessions— could be trusted. Deconstructionists learned, above all, to raise tough philosophical questions, to turn all manner of assumptions either inside out or onto their heads. They, above anyone else, should not find it surprising that many feel there is a measure of poetic justice in the questions now being raised about one of the movement’s major voices.

But that said, the attempts to link what a 22-year-old Paul de Man wrote during the Belgium occupation and what he wrote as a Yale professor are exercises either in futility (for those seeking hard evidence of residual anti-Semitism) or in ingenuity (for those not adverse to turning de Man’s deconstructionist method against his ghost). To my mind, it is more disturbing that many of de Man’s colleagues—including some who now feign “shock” about his collaborationist past— were aware, at least in outline, of the articles recently unearthed. Indeed, this is a case where the all too familiar formula of “what did you know, and when did you learn it?” may yet find its way into the groves of academe. One thing, at least, is clear: the era of the cover-up is over, and those, however well-meaning their intentions, who urged de Man not to “go public” about his past will have much to answer for.

Which brings me to the cunning of History, a more venerable phenomenon than “indeterminacy,” and one with at least as many faces. Consider, for example, the following passage from de Man’s March 4, 1941 article entitled “Les Juifs dans la Litterature actuelle” (“Jews in Contemporary Literature”):

It shows the strength of our Western intellectuals [de Man argues] that they could protect, from Jewish influence, a sphere as representative of the culture at large as literature. . .[Thus] despite the lingering Semiticism in all our civilization, literature showed that its essential nature was healthy. . .[Nonetheless], a solution to the Jewish problem that aimed at the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would entail no deplorable consequences for the literary life of the Occident.

Granted, this is the most offensive, the most shivery square inch of prose in all of de Man’s wartime journalism; and, not surprisingly, these are the lines that the popular press fastened upon. Precisely 18 months later (on Aug. 4, 1942), the first trainload of Belgian Jews left the country, headed for Auschwitz. Read with hindsight—and surely that must have a place in the reader-response arsenal—who would wish to argue that de Man’s judgments made nothing happen, that they were as isolated and as purely literary as Auden’s description of poetry itself: “it survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper”? In wartime Europe, busy German executives did, indeed, want to tamper—and the plans they hatched for a Final Solution depended in equal measures on bureaucratic efficiency, on technological capability, and, not least of all, on the world’s cooperation. Some had eyes but did not see the handwriting on the wall, the yellow stars sewn onto Jewish arms; some had ears but did not hear the sounds of shattered glass on Kristallnacht; and some, like de Man, poured old poisons into new bottles.

In this regard, the Belgian Paul de Man was hardly the dazzling, original thinker who became such a major force in contemporary literary theory. Rather, he represented the cultural mainstream of that time, that place. As Ortwin de Graef, the young Belgian scholar whose dissertation precipitated the de Man controversy, told me:

It was, of course, a long established fact that the Jewish diamond industry exerted great economic power. And there is a way in which the fact that Marx was a Jew was a threat to a country like Belgium that was still Catholic. Indeed, there was a way in which Jews and Bolsheviks and capitalists were all linked together, and not very much liked at the time. In short, you had the Jewish-Bolshevik-capitalist conspiracy, however incongruous the notion might seem. But there is a way in which a scapegoat had to be found, and the Jews were an eligible target.

Moreover, there’s never smoke without fire. There is a way in which the Jews did play a certain role in economic manipulations that led to various international conflicts at the time.

De Graef is, of course, yet another instance of the ways in which the cunning of history has fastened itself to the ongoing saga of Professor de Man. The alternating currents of attack and defense that have swirled around de Man’s legacy were the last things de Graef imagined possible when he began his scholarly research into the archives of Antwerp’s Flemish community. An Antwerp native himself, de Graef knew that Hendrik de Man (Paul’s uncle) was a prominent socialist, the author of an important critique of Marxism, Zur Psychologic des Socialismus [1926], and a member of the Zeeland government during the Nazi occupation. Perhaps he might find a reference to Paul de Man in the documentation about his more famous uncle.

What he found, instead, was a catalog listing for P. de Man, and the rest, as they say, is controversy piled atop controversy. Had de Graef consciously set out to tarnish de Man’s reputation, he couldn’t have found more damaging evidence; but the irony—the cunning of History, if you will—is that he set about to light one more candle on de Man’s altar. Again, in de Graef s own words:

The issue of anti-Semiticism is very complicated in Belgium. De Man was from Antwerp, after all, and Antwerp is where the Jews of Belgium are largely concentrated. Moreover, they are a very particular type of Jew—isolated and “queer” for the native Belgian. . . . There was certainly an exclusivism, a racism, on the part of Belgian Jewry. Nor is it improbable that the Belgian Jews—certainly the Antwerp Jews—would, indeed, pray to Jehovah to “confound the goyim, as the illustration put it in Le Soir. So, when de Man talks about creating a separate colony for Jews outside of Europe, this is the very same idea that Jews themselves had been propagating for a long time— namely, the Zionist ideal of a Jewish colony in a Jewish country. What de Man said was this: we’re European, and Jews, insofar as they profess themselves to be Jews, are not European.

In short, the diamond market of Antwerp—then and now—is regarded very differently from its counterpart on 47th Street. On the other side of the Atlantic, opinions that we would dismiss as fulminations from the lunatic fringe retain a disturbing currency.

Many factors account for the difference, but certainly the democratic vision I spoke about earlier is the most important. Indeed, here one sees the cunning of History in its most complicated, and most tragic, form. For what broke down in the prewar Belgium of its best intellectuals was a belief in liberal democracy. In the salon life of Brussels (where the young Paul de Man was an active participant), nothing was more certain than the bankruptcy of liberalism in general, and the present Belgian order in particular. No doubt de Man’s Flemish—as opposed to Walloon—roots intensified his reactionism.

By 1939, Hendrik de Man believed that only an “authoritarian” democracy could bring about Socialist reform; a year later, the Nazis invaded Belgium, and he entered into his ill-fated “collaboration of principle” with the occupier. As Jean Stengers, editor of Revue Beige de Philologie et d’Histoire, recounts the series of tragic decisions and their consequences:

[In 1939, Hendrik de Man] wanted governments set up for four years, during which time parliament would not be permitted to overthrow them; budgets voted for four years; and one chamber instead of the bicameral system. At the same time, he renewed his earlier proposals for a corporatist system that would have its say in economic questions. World War II came before these views could be discussed by the Socialist Party itself. In the country they found very little echo. But after the German victory of May and June, 1940, de Man’s loss of faith in democracy had a direct result. As president of the Socialist Party, he then issued a manifesto celebrating the collapse of “decrepit” democracies as a “liberation” for the working class. A short spell of collaboration with the Germans ensued; but de Man did not find much more comfort there. He ended his life an exile in Switzerland. He had no disciples.

To be sure, Hendrik de Man was hardly alone either in his despair about the Nazi juggernaut or in his hope that Socialists might be able to “bore from within” their ranks; as fantastic as it now seems, the condition affected a great many European intellectuals who felt defeated by history and who hoped that Fascism might provide a route toward cultural renewal. Thus, Hendrik de Man argued that while Hitler is some sort of demonic, violent force, and while he couldn’t be at all sure about the Europe that might emerge, a Hitler might be necessary.

In Hendrik de Man’s case, New Ideas did not goose-step into the country wearing a Nazi uniform. There was never a blind embracing of sturm und drang, no enthusiasm for the pan-Aryan ideal, no passion for the swastika. But there was a strong feeling that the new order offered a way out of the dead end of Belgian politics, and that one could imagine an independent Belgium, and a stronger Europe, when the process completed itself. In this case, the “one”—be it Hendrik de Man or his nephew, Paul—couldn’t have been more tragically wrong.

Indeed, what we have as the de Man affair forces us to concentrate on wartime Belgium as a series of threadbare semantic distinctions: “collaborationists of principle” vs. simple collaborationist; cultural anti-Semitism with a modernist patina vs. an anti-Semitism fully prepared to act on its convictions. That Paul de Man’s last years were spent teaching us to distrust language, to see the inexorable ways in which politics fastens itself around claims of value in literature or in the very rhythms of what we call “history” is perhaps the final irony that History itself has in mind for his epitaph.


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