De Man was a mediocre student (largely because he took engineering and chemistry courses), but he was steeped in different traditions than his US peers: existentialism, modernism, the avant-garde both before and after the second World War — indeed in America, he served as an important conduit to European thought, writing on Walter Benjamin before it was de rigueur, engaging in dialogue with Derrida when Derrida was largely unknown, turning in his later works to an encounter with Adorno. And there remain important continuities between de Man and his European elders. It’s important to remember, for example, that one of de Man’s major late essays is called The Return to Philology, by which he meant a return to a rigorous attention to the linguistic specifics of a text in and of itself without recourse to any humanistic pap or moral, ethical, or hermeneutical hijinks. Whether this is an adequate “return,” I leave to the philologists to debate; what seems important is that late in his life, de Man affiliated himself with a tradition of European thought that began, as Jeffrey Harpham has reminded us, in the 18th century’s demystification of Biblical texts and thence to Nietzsche’s madcap philologism before it rolled across the seas in the 20th century. More generally, explication de texte as a method was rooted, in its Comparative Literature aspects, in philology, and competed with — even as it ultimately merged into — the superior pedagogically (because more accessible) but inferior intellectually (because un-self-critical) Anglo-American “New Criticism,” with its emphasis on close reading as a method. Deconstruction in its de Manian guise needs to be understood under the sign of this genealogy, as an attempt to bring the demystifying essence of the philological perspective and close attention to literary detail inherent in the explication tradition together as a critical method.Had a meeting today about the course I am teaching in the fall: it is called "Literary Texts, Critical Methods," and it is the required introduction to critical approaches that all our undergraduate majors take, preferably in their second year. An interesting challenge, but also a daunting one!
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
At the LARB, a very good essay by Jonathan Freedman on the topic of Paul De Man: