The most concerted attack on Paul de Man’s work has come from critics of a Marxist or left-wing persuasion, notably Frank Lentricchia and Terry Eagleton. They see in it not only a private retreat from political engagement but a last-ditch attempt to discredit every form of historical knowledge and action. “In de Man’s analysis,” Lentricchia writes, “the futility, the self-delusion, and the paralysis of political activity, especially oppositional political activity, would appear to be a foregone conclusion.”1
And this not simply for the reason that de Man would treat all kinds of writing—historical narratives, political manifestos, works of Ideologiekritik
—as so many complex rhetorical structures with no direct or unmediated reference to a world of reality “outside” the text. The same could be said, after all, of those left-wing activist critics like Edward Said who insist on the materiality of signifying practice, the ways in which cultural representations can work to reinforce or to challenge and subvert systems of instituted power.2
Lentricchia himself makes this point very firmly in Criticism and Social Change,
where he hails Kenneth Burke as the greatest exemplar of a practice of engaged rhetorical critique, a critique that aims to transform social consciousness by revealing the mechanisms of ideological mystification. If Burke is the hero of Lentricchia’s tale, de Man figures throughout as his devilish counterpart, a “nihilist” bent upon throwing up obstacles to any hope of comprehending—and thus transforming—our historical situation.
Burke is placed squarely in the long tradition (going back at least to Aristotle) that associates rhetoric not only with the business of producing
suasive arguments but also with the need to defend and debate those arguments in the forum of political exchange. His entire life’s work, so Lentricchia contends, is a fine vindication of rhetoric’s claim to act as an energizing force in the struggle to articulate social interests and motives. For de Man, on the contrary, rhetoric is a means of disabling this project at source, of showing how language always and inevitably “dissociates the cognition from the act,” thus reducing thought to an endless reflection on its own incapacity for effecting radical change. Deconstruction is the heir to that Nietzschean strain of irrationalist fatalism that reduces all thinking to the blind operation of tropes and self-engendered rhetorical forces beyond our power to control or comprehend. It thus becomes unthinkable—the merest dream of an outworn enlightenment tradition —that historical agents should seek to change their material conditions of existence by translating thought into action through a sustained effort of ideological critique. As Lentricchia reads it, de Man’s is currently the most “advanced” form of this desire to neutralize political activity by showing it to rest on hopelessly naive ideas about mind, language, and reality.
Terry Eagleton concurs pretty much with Lentricchia’s diagnosis, viewing the entirety of de Man’s work as a covert polemic against Marxism.3
He points to those passages in the early de Man where Heidegger’s influence is still strongly marked, and where the claims of historical (especially of historical-materialist) thought are counterposed to the deeper, more “authentic” demands of an existential brooding on Dasein,
time, and mortality. For Eagleton, the essays in Blindness and Insight
—at least those dating from the first period of de Man’s literary production—typically work to establish the following conclusions. Historical understanding is a form of false consciousness, the refuge of minds unable to contemplate the stark contingencies of human existence and authentic being-unto-death. Thus Marxism restricts its understanding to the realm of merely secular history and politics in order to avoid the tragic self-knowledge, the sense of our dispossessed or alien predicament that comes of such authentic experience. Poetry and politics are worlds apart, since poetry (on de Man’s Heideggerian account of it) reveals the ontological difference between beings and Being, the gap that opens up between our everyday empirical knowledge of the world and that primordial truth whose only intimations are the signs of its existing beyond all reach of our belated, secular condition. If Marxism to some extent shares this view—if it speaks of human history in terms of a fall into reification, class division, and other such evils—still it lacks the courage or the will to press this analysis home. For de Man, in short, “the problem of separation inheres in Being, which means that social forms of separation derive from ontological and meta-social attitudes.”4
Marxism attempts to do is translate this unhappy consciousness, this sense of inward exile and estrangement, into a merely historical
accident whose effects can always be reversed by the appropriate, historically punctual forms of concerted thought and action. “Marxism is, ultimately, a poetic thought that lacks the patience to pursue its conclusions to their end.”5
That is to say, it is “poetic” to the extent of acknowledging our present self-divided, unhappy condition, but falls short of poetry (authentic poetry) in seeking a secular, political issue out of all our afflictions.
Eagleton is undoubtedly right when he argues that this early Heideggerian strain in de Man goes along with a deep aversion to Marxism and the claims of historical understanding. There is also de Man’s sharp denial of the idea that thought might at length overcome the “division inherent in Being” through forms of jointly intellectual and material praxis which offer at least a glimpse of alternative possibilities. In rejecting such notions the early de Man sounds a decidedly Hegelian note. “The ambiguity poetry speaks of is the fundamental one that prevails between the world of the spirit and the world of sentient substance…. The spirit cannot coincide with its object and this separation is infinitely sorrowful.”6
So there is no transcending this ontological gulf, this distance fixed between thought and the material objects-of-thought. Least of all can such transcendence be achieved by a Marxist criticism which—as de Man would have it—merely lacks the necessary “patience” or courage to know what the poets have always implicitly known. It is on these grounds that de Man argues (and will indeed continue to argue, through Allegories of Reading
to his very last essays) that linguistic meaning can never be reduced to any form of phenomenal cognition; that there is simply no warrant, no evidence at all for the widespread assumption that meaning coincides with something in the nature of physical or sensuous perception. De Man’s attitude to Marxism—and, more generally, to the claims of politics on literary theory—would change a great deal in the three decades that separate his earliest from his final essays. But he remained quite unswerving in this conviction that any move to short-circuit the gap between phenomenal and semantic orders of sense was merely a deluded attempt to escape the problems faced by all authentic reflection on language, thought, and reality.7
To the Marxist such insistence will appear just a form of stubbornly mystified thinking, one that serves to bolster an attitude of political quietism (or something worse). Thus Eagleton pointedly turns back the thrust of de Man’s polemic, arguing that the “unhappy consciousness” in question is not
the product of some timeless metaphysical malaise, some deep self-division inherent in Being itself, but more specifically the upshot of a bourgeois-liberal academic tradition run aground on the knowledge
of its own historical obsolescence. “What for de Man is the irony of the human condition as such is in fact the product of a particular historical blockage, of which deconstruction is the inheritor.”8
For Lentricchia likewise, the motivating impulse of de Man’s whole project is the will to block or frustrate any kind of radical critique that would move beyond theory to the realm of politically effective choices and actions. He finds the main evidence for this in de Man’s 1969 essay “Literary History and Literary Modernity,” where the modern is conceived in Nietzschean terms as an absolute break with all forms of historical awareness, a moment of oblivion which frees thought for action only by severing its links with a remembered past.9
Such forgetting is vital (Nietzsche contends) because history and memory are inherently opposed to the will for radical change. They stand on the side of permanence, continuity, tradition, and everything that tends to paralyze thought by its clinging to obsolete values and ideas. “Modernity” and “history” are therefore antithetical terms, opposed not so much in a merely chronological sense as by reason of their always confronting the thinker with a drastic choice of alternatives. For Nietzsche (in his essay “The Use and Abuse of History”) this amounts to the choice between a wholly inert, monumentalizing concept of tradition, one that precludes any thought of change, and on the other hand a kind of innocence regained, a posthistorical euphoria that acknowledges nothing anterior to itself. “Life,” “health,” “vitality,” “energy,” and “action” are some other names by which Nietzsche distinguishes the promise of renewal contained in this power of an absolute, radical forgetting.10
Lentricchia reads de Man as surpassing even Nietzsche in the will to discredit historical thought by setting it up in false opposition to a mystified concept of modernity. For de Man, this opposition is in any case deluded, since there is always a deeper complicity at work within and between the two terms, a reciprocal dependence whereby “history” is defined as the passive counterpart of modernity, and modernity as that which actively contests but also presupposes the truth-claims of history. To de Man it thus appears that “Nietzsche’s most interesting moments move against—that is, ‘deconstruct’—the opposition of history and life by showing them to be involved with each other in an interdependent relationship of nonopposition.”11
And this has the effect (so Lentricchia argues) of utterly immobilizing thought by denying it even that last, desperate escape route to a Nietzschean moment of pure forgetting. De Man is after all not deceived into thinking that any such move is really possible; that thought can simply break with its entire prehistory and achieve this kind of radical innocence. His intention is rather to destroy the very grounds of historical understanding by a three-stage process of reductive argument whose premises are 1) that “history” is a profoundly
conservative force which works against the spirit of renewal; 2) that “modernity” is the only way out from under the dead hand of history; but 3) that since modernity itself depends on an “absolute forgetting” which is strictly inconceivable, therefore
we should place no faith in projects that envisage any kind of radical change. If we accept these arguments, Lentricchia warns, then we can easily be led to accept also “his [de Man’s] implied conclusions about radicalism and revolution,” namely that these are delusive ideas without the least basis of historical or existential warrant. “The condition for action is not just forgetting—which is Nietzsche’s modest point, but (de Man’s inflation of the Nietzschean point) an ‘absolute’ forgetting, a pleonastic underscoring that hints at de Man’s fundamental hostility toward the political, a stacking of the cards against action’s political efficacy.”12
There is no doubt that de Man’s early essays are indeed heavily “stacked” against Marxism and against any form of critical thinking that would privilege history as the ultimate ground of interpretative method. What he always sets up in opposition to history is a certain idea of the poetic, of poetry as a deeper, more authentic knowledge undeluded by the claims of merely secular understanding. Perhaps the most striking example is his essay “Wordsworth and Hölderlin” (1966), where de Man raises questions of historical belatedness, of poetry’s relation to politics, and specifically that kind of revolutionary politics that preoccupies Wordsworth in The Prelude
One passage he singles out is the sequence of episodes in Book VI where the poet records his journeyings in France during 1790—looking back on them, of course, from a ten-year distance and a greatly altered political perspective. Wordsworth’s companions on this occasion were two young delegates to the états généraux
whose mood of radical excitement the poet then shared although now, at the actual time of writing (1802), he views it in a spirit of chastened, postrevolutionary hindsight. As de Man remarks, such passages have often caused confusion among Wordsworth’s critics, involving as they do a complex relationship of voices, time scales, and narrative levels which resist any clearcut distinction between past and present consciousness. In technical terms these problems are a matter of enunciative modality, of whether— at any given stage—we are attending to the thoughts of the young Wordsworth, recreated through sympathetic insight, or whether it is the older, disenchanted poet who supplies an ironic gloss on those thoughts. But issues of politics are never far away when interpreters take their stand on such questions. And what emerges in the course of de Man’s reading is certainly of interest from this point of view.
A crucial passage in the sequence, he argues, is Wordsworth’s account of the cloister of the Grande Chartreuse, representative of all those religious institutions and values threatened by the mounting
revolutionary violence. De Man sees no evidence of straightforward conservative reaction in the older poet’s manner of recounting this episode. “In 1802…it was in no way a matter (as it often was later) of protecting the ruling religion against a social reform in which he had fully believed” (RR,
p. 55). But there is all the same—according to de Man —a much subtler movement of recoil from the claims of political action, a movement which takes us back to those antinomies propounded in a starker, more programmatic form in the essay “Literary History and Literary Modernity.” Again it is a question of two distinct attitudes to the nature of human experience, the one (political) staking its faith on the efficacy of action and the prospects for change, the other (more authentic) acknowledging the utterly contingent nature of our being-in-the-world and the overriding fact of our common mortality. Politics is seen as a means of evading these ultimate issues, a premature escape from the concerns that characterize all true reflection on the nature and limits of human understanding.
It will help to quote at length from de Man’s commentary and bring out the various oppositions in play. What the radicals threaten to destroy, he writes,
De Man makes this point in a language heavy with existentialist overtones, a rhetoric more typical of his earliest essays but by no means absent from the writings of his middle period. The French revolutionaries are here identified with a will to pass directly from everyday, natural experience to a providential order that will dawn, so to speak, only under the aspect of eternity. Their “enthusiasm” knows no mortal bounds; it leaps toward a kind of premature transcendence that would raise political action to the level of revealed truth. And in so doing they ignore the constraints placed upon human knowledge by the limiting conditions of time, mortality, and chance—by the fact that there exists no ultimate, validating truth that could save such actions from their own utterly contingent historical nature.
The radicals are thus caught up in that same double-bind or disabling aporia that de Man formulates most explicitly in “Literary History and Literary Modernity.” They are the creatures of an unreflecting will-to-
power that can find expression only in a cycle of escalating violence, yet would surely be reduced to paralysis and terminal despair were it once to take thought and acknowledge the nature of its own historical predicament. “History is, to the extent that it is an act, a dangerous and destructive act, a kind of hubris of the will that rebels against the grasp of time” (RR,
pp. 56–57). Where the radicals fall into bad faith is in believing that their actions will be justified sub specie aeternitatis,
through a transfiguration of history and time brought about by revolutionary change. Such is the “intoxication of the act,” a fervor that blinds them to the self-willed, arbitrary character of their own utopian imaginings. What sustains revolutionary action is the desire to create and possess “something that endures,” a renewed social order that perfectly embodies the spirit of its first creation. But this belief is made possible, de Man argues, only by conceiving of history as Wordsworth conceives it, on the model of those privileged contemplative moments when mind and nature, subject and object exist in a state of perfect, unimpeded communion. It is at moments like these—visionary moments achieved by an act of sovereign creative will—that the world might seem to live up to every demand that imagination can place on it. And so this “something that endures,” whether a poem or a new political order, can only be conceived in terms of the analogy with a nature which itself endures “precisely because it negates the instant, just as reflection must negate the act that nonetheless constitutes its origin” (RR,
p. 56). In which case—as de Man clearly wishes to imply—there is a lesson to be drawn from Wordsworth’s example, from his abandoning the realm of political action for that of contemplative nature poetry. This lesson has to do with the self-deluding claims of revolutionary praxis, the aporias of historical consciousness, and the power of poetry to chasten and subdue the will for radical change.
“For Wordsworth,” de Man writes, “there is no historical eschatology, but rather only a never-ending reflection upon an eschatological moment that has failed through the excess of its interiority” (RR, p. 59). One could gloss this sentence in various ways, but they would all tend to confirm Lentricchia’s diagnosis of the manner in which de Man works to problematize the claims of history and politics. Poetry...