Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Fascism and Form

Long before Paul de Man was exposed as the fascist that he was, Frank Lentricchia had discerned the grammar of the Reichspropagandaleitung:

"Recently in the Hudson Review William Pritchard playfully dubbed Yale's four best-known literary critics the "Hermeneutical mafia." Who could have imagined that the term 'Mafia' would degenerate into a metaphor for avant-garde literary theorists? But perhaps there may be some value in extending a much-assaulted figure to the fearsome Yale group. Assuming there is a Yale mafia, then surely there must be a resident Godfather. One is forced to finger Paul de Man, who exhibits qualities that may earn him the role of Don Paolo, capo di tutti capi. Reading the prefaces and acknowledgments of Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller, one is struck by the tone of respect, even reverence, with which the name of Paul de Man is mentioned. It is not difficult to locate reasons. Bloom's latest thesis about literary history was announced by de Man in an obscure essay; Miller's turn from Poulet to Derrida in an essay on Poulet was not much more than a repetition of de Man's earlier essay on Poulet. The question is, why should Bloom, Hartman, and Miller -- potential dons in their own right -- appear to be executing the orders of Godfather de Man?

In the manner of a don whose power is assured and unquestioned, de Man has found it necessary to speak only sparingly; in comparison to his prolific lieutenants he is almost invisible. We know that according to certain dark traditions the don need not speak often, nor elaborately, because when the don speaks he speaks with total authority, and it is de Man's "rhetoric of authority," as I'll call it, which has distinguished his criticism since its earliest days. This is a critic who has always given the impression of having a grip on truth. Even while, in Blindness and Insight, he was telling us that there was no truth, of if there was, that it could never be known, he spoke transcendentally of the "foreknowledge we possess of the true nature of literature." Unlike Hartman, whose prose, in its pursuit of the labyrinthine ramifications of a point, is the very model of the scholar's descent into the inferno of self-consciousness; and unlike Bloom, whose emotionally pressured and strident style gives away a critic not altogether confident of how what he proposes will be received, de Man has not had to speak in anything but a cool and straightforward manner.

The epigraph that I've chosen from one of his latest pieces is representative of the de Man style at its most intimidating: [ "The whole of literature would respond in a similar fashion, although the techniques and the patterns would have to vary considerably, of course, from author to author. But there is absolutely no reason why analyses of the kind here suggested for Proust would not be applicable, with proper modifications of technique, to Milton or to Dante or to Holderlin. This will in fact be the task of literary criticism in the coming years." -- Paul de Man, "Semiology and Rhetoric"]. He speaks openly of the "whole of literature" responding to his thesis. But how does he know? Is he making the claim from a transcendental ground, having discovered the a priori form of all literary discourse? In two subordinate clauses, we observe him granting a qualification: he tells us that techniques of analysis will have to be modified from author to author. But the tone of his qualification is set with that tired little scholarly aside -- "of course" -- which in this instance projects the tone of the critics voice, condescending to an elaboration, but telling us, as he does so, that such practical matters are for others to worry about. The final sentence clarifies his stance: "This will in fact be the task of literary criticism in the coming years." If we had any doubts, we know now that de Man is making not an empirical but an idealistic claim. He presumes to tell us not only what literature has been but also what it must be. And, somewhat chillingly (perhaps it is best to drop the metaphor of the Godfather at this point), he tells us not what literary critics ought to be doing but what "in fact" they shall be doing. In one way or another, whether in the philosophical garb of the Sartrean existentialist, or in the guise of the Derridean poststructuralist, de Man has been speaking that way about literature and criticism for many years." (Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism, p. 283--284).


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