debating the double life of Paul de Man

P5_Jefferson_Web_1098874hAnn Jefferson at the Times Literary Supplement:

But there is a further and more problematic accusation. Using de Man’s argument according to which the evolution of literature is determined by its inherent dynamic, independently of individual writers – Jewish or otherwise – Barish comments that de Man was in search of “general principles” and “abstract theories” into which he could then fit literary works whose particularities might be ignored: “cutting away what was individual and showing how writers ‘submitted’ to those supposed aesthetic regulations shifting with the ages would be the task for the historian”. The implication here is that, like the Nazi ideology of the German occupier, “Grand Theory” rides roughshod over individuals and, moreover, that this reflects a general attitude of mind on the part of the person who chooses to explore the larger forces at work in literature.

What this implication ignores is that the notion of a literature that transcended the individual was part of avant-garde French thinking from Mallarmé to Gide, and that de Man’s interest in such ideas was a reflection of his immersion in that literature. To describe him as an “autodidact”, as Barish repeatedly and somewhat disparagingly does, is to fail to acknowledge de Man’s responsiveness to what were the most urgent and challenging issues in contemporary literature and literary thinking. His later interest in Georges Bataille, the author of a defence of expenditure and excess, is interpreted here merely as providing endorsement for de Man’s spendthrift habits, Surrealism is made to sound simply dubious, and Sartre’s existentialism treated as a morally reprehensible licence to “flee forward” and leave history behind.

more here.