Nazi covering his tracks with a smokescreen of words

The Wild Card of Reading
March 12, 1999

Literary theory began in 1968 between the release of Sergeant Pepper and Neil Armstrong taking one giant step for mankind. There were one or two other minor incidents of note such as the Prague spring and the entry of British troops into Northern Ireland. You will not find any of that information in this book, but I mention it because one of the complaints levelled against literary theory is that it does not engage with real-world questions of history and politics.

Those who make such complaints will receive further, if unwitting, support from Rodolphe Gasche's argument that Paul de Man scrupulously uncoupled words from the world. By devious but often brilliant theorising, de Man was able to claim that since language referred only to itself it was completely "disconnected from cognitive and value considerations". He further maintained that it exists as "pure potentiality" that "never proceeds to action". Well, since he wrote pro-Nazi propaganda for Le Soir in wartime Belgium, he would say that, wouldn't he? It is hard to resist the conclusion that de Man's views on language constitute anything more than an elaborate evasion, a byzantine abdication of responsibility for his younger self.

Gasche is a critical but sympathetic commentator on de Man. He is abundantly aware of his faults; his employment of technical terms without regard for their established definitions, and his tendency to declaration rather than argument. But he is also sensitive to what sets de Man apart, namely his practice of "rhetorical reading". This focuses on the way that grammar and rhetoric interfere with one another to render the meanings of a text indeterminate. Furthermore, the tension between them means that a work can never be viewed as a whole and, in the extreme version of this theory, it dissolves into a series of isolated and completely unrelated incidents.

Although de Man wants to dismantle totalities because he sees them as repressive, there is something totalitarian in his view of reading. Ultimately, de Man's persistent dismantling of motivated utterances and his repeated view that "nothing ever happens in relation, only at random" show a disturbing preference for the irrational which casts doubt on Gasche's assertion that de Man's later writings are "infinitely distanced from his earlier position".

Gasche has to be applauded for his patient exposition of de Man and his detailed arguments both for and against his theory of reading. Ultimately, this spirited defence of de Man raises as many questions about the ethics of theory as the Pinochet affair does about British justice.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

The Wild Card of Reading: On Paul de Man

Author - Rodolphe Gasche
ISBN - 0 674 95295 2 and 95296 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £.95 and £12.50
Pages - 309

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