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Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man
by David Lehman
Poseidon Press/Simon & Schuster, 318 pages, $21.95

David Lehman’s book on deconstruction has the rare quality of being better than its jacket blurbs and prepublication puffs. It is more than “lively and engaging” and more than “highly readable.” True, it is “lively, carefully documented, quietly devastating”; but over and above these accolades, Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man has the merit of sending a powerful stream of light and hope onto a discipline currently betraying signs of advanced acedia: tedium, ill-humor, depression—inarticulate whispers of some impending end. 

The title, Signs of the Times, contests the claim of Jacques Derrida that “the question of the sign” is not to be confused with “a sign of the times”; more to the point, “signs of the times” alludes to an essay of the same title by Thomas Carlyle, who in 1829 complained that theory was debasing art, and treating it as a species of masonry. “Wonder,” wrote Carlyle, “is dying out . . . .” But, he added, if we look calmly about us and discern the signs of our own time, we create the opportunity of adjusting “our own position in it.” For Lehman, the same holds true today. 

This is a piece of wisdom, not solemn but cheering. It takes up George Orwell’s dismissal of “the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” Lehman has issued a call to order, to a free self-orienting act of return to renewed sanity, imagination, reason, and responsibility. The call is serious and eloquent. 

It is also crushingly cogent. Again and again, the project of deconstruction, moving in one direction by the “performance” of exposition or argument, and in a diametrically opposite direction by rejecting the possibility of accurate exposition and valid argument, nullifies its claims by this flat self-reversal. 

Nevertheless, the word “deconstruction,” at least, has become irresistible. Political columns, the sports page, the parlance of the avant-garde (and increasingly of the merely literature have taken it over. Lehman, besides bearing witness to how it originally functioned in the work of Derrida, sums up deconstruction in ten commandments: “All the world’s a text,” “Presence is absent,” “The author is dead,” “History is bunk,” and so on. He traces its immediate origins and cites critiques mild and harsh by sundry scholars and thinkers. Finally, the second half of the book takes up the scandalous case of Paul de Man. 

De Man, sometime chairman of the departments of English and of Comparative Literature at Yale, was the leading literary exponent of deconstructionist theory in America. To him, deconstruction went far beyond its uses as a critical instrument. Shortly before he died in 1983, he told a colleague, “The stakes are enormous”—a judgment truer than could well have appeared at the time. 

The de Man scandal broke in the United States on December 1, 1987, when the New York Times published the story of de Man’s wartime articles in Le Soir, formerly a leading national newspaper in Belgium that had been converted by Nazi collaborators into a propaganda sheet after the Belgian debacle of 1940. Paul de Man, aged twenty, and (as we now know) the nephew of Hendrik de Man, a Belgian fascist who came into his own when the Germans took over Belgium, wrote for Le Soir from the end of 1940 until November 1942. Since the story broke, it has also come to light that when de Man left Belgium in 1948, he left his business and father bankrupt, and abandoned a wife and three children. 

The peculiar interest attaching to these revelations derived from their relation to deconstructive theory and practice. De Man’s disciples and colleagues drew on deconstruction in a long effort to render harmless his pro-Nazi articles, especially the anti-Jewish column of March 4, 1941. Meantime, de Man’s critics took up a theme that had already been adumbrated by the critic Denis Donoghue as early as 1980, before de Man’s death and long before the de Man scandal broke. In a piece in the New York Review of Books Donoghue had protested against the dehumanizing of literature, the reduction to “pure linguistic functions” of the voice of

someone [Rousseau] talking about his own experience, accusing himself, justifying himself, and so forth. De Man can’t bear to hear that voice . . . : he wants to see a machine working without human intervention.

Applied rigorously, this critical tack would, said Donoghue, demolish in advance all the questions raised “in morality, ethics, politics, and psychology.”

The posthumous debate on de Man and his personal record, then, inevitably turned into a debate on his theory. It seemed all too understandable that de Man, out of that keen self-interest retrospectively evident in his early career, should have seized on and developed a theory calculated to wipe out the themes of guilt and confession, themes that haunted his most influential criticism. “De Man’s life,” Lehman observes, “is almost made to order for a worldview holding that language is ‘an unreliable process of knowledge production.’” In other words, the worldview was made to order for the life.

Like others before him, Lehman distinguishes between hard and soft deconstruction. Hard deconstruction is deconstruction as the deconstructionists themselves describe and apply it. “Soft” deconstruction, on the other hand, would reduce deconstruction to instrumental status. As such, it becomes just one more resource that any critic is free to draw on selectively. This is probably what the legacy of deconstruction will turn out to be—cool, free-spirited, skeptical rhetoric, distantly reflecting that odd, alienated, ideological period in American university life, the 1980s.

The soft version recalls Wayne Booth’s effort in Critical Understanding to find a way of turning the dead loss of hard deconstruction to some limited profit. Booth attempted to show what a nondeconstructionist might draw from the movement, once it was stripped of its “totalizations” and “necessities.” Lehman is both clear about hard deconstruction and judicious in assessing and commending the soft version, whereas Booth was too polite to confront hard deconstruction on its own terms, too loath to exclude it from the pluralist pale. A dining companion had once told him: “What you should be doing is taking on those French crazies, head-on.” Booth preferred the role of the non-ruler-out, which ended less in judicious discrimination than in evasion. (Booth denied the harsh fact that there may and do exist among us mental and spiritual horizons that are irreducibly opposed, though he had had no scruples about taking apart Bertrand Russell’s incoherences. Respecting deconstruction, he seemed at ease with the congenial-seeming illusion that all disagreements can be made to progress toward a solid and happy resolution.) Soft forms of deconstruction may be worth considering, but hard deconstruction is what counts, and it cannot be treated with full satisfaction in commonsense terms.

This points up a single shortcoming in Lehman’s volume that diminishes its power: the absence of philosophy. Deconstruction is the product of philosophers. Lehman has provided ample evidence of how Jacques Derrida, chief philosophic patron of the movement, having more than enough rope to hang himself, has repeatedly obliged by hanging himself higher than Haman. This he has achieved through the numerous self-canceling acts that Lehman has acutely noted. But by working exclusively on a commonsense basis, Lehman has not put himself in a position to specify the points at which deconstruction guarantees its eventual self-reversal and so fails as a philosophy.

This is what must be done if one is to kill the snake, not scotch it. We should begin by reminding ourselves not to be impressed by the ploys of the intellectually irresponsible, those, namely, who do not permit themselves to be shaken by self-reversal. This is simply blindness: self-reversal (sometimes described as “sawing off the branch you’re sitting on”) definitively discredits the propositions that suffer it. One may propose the internally consistent statement: “We cannot know what is really and truly so.” But look what happens when we make thematic the act of proposing this theme: “I am telling you what is really and truly so, when I say that we cannot know what is really and truly so.” Here the speaker performatively affirms what he thematically denies.

Lehman describes the incoherence in question as “syntax” vs. “content.” This is true, but “performance” vs. “content” is more basic and precise, for syntax, like language generally, depends on the performance of mental acts, which are just what language expresses. The real root of this self-reversal is not syntax but the nature of the act of proposing a proposition: to intend truth. The nature of the act does not keep the proposer from erring or lying; it merely fulfills the condition of the possibility of erring and lying.

The premises of deconstruction guarantee such self-reversal by their lack of interest in and close attention to the workings of human intelligence. Our own appeal to these workings will draw on the philosophic component in the work of the Catholic thinker Bernard Lonergan.

An old friend, one in whose wide culture all his friends take pleasure, told me once as we walked in the countryside what he didn’t like about the followers of Lonergan. “One of them asked what I thought of Method in Theology. I said it seemed to me a good book. He was indignant. What more did he want? I said it was a good book.”

I sympathized with both my friend and the Lonerganian, but I do know why the Lonerganian had not been pleased. The one thing that Method in Theology, like its predecessor, Insight, cannot be is just a good book. If these works are wrong, they are a snare and a delusion. If they are right, they are the magna charta of a great enterprise, one likely to engage thinkers and scholars over an indeterminately long period in the future. An instance of their usefulness, meanwhile, is an issue like the present one, deconstruction and what’s wrong with it.

The first among the main things wrong is its immersion in an inauthentic current of thought, one that would prefer to get along without coherence with the world of fact. Nietzsche included among his maxims and assorted opinions the repudiation of the pure desire or drive to know, for the ego, he argued, was at stake in our opinions and this (nothing else) was the source of our so-called “intellectual conscience.” Again, “the falsest judgments” were the most “indispensable” to us, and the falsity of a judgment was not to be held against it, so long as it was . . . life-furthering! And if Heidegger made clear his contempt for arguments pointing out the incoherence of a given theme with the act of proposing it, we should remember that his choices were few. When one is confronted with the evidence of self-reversal, dismissal is the only alternative to retraction. The skeptics of antiquity were a mere decent lot. They had only to speak, and there was Aristotle, convicting them of doublethink and reducing them to silence. Deconstruction had the (ultimately bad) luck of learning from Nietzsche and Heidegger to dismiss compelling argument with a cool flick of the wrist.

Self-reversal shows that, as prospective knowers, we are ordered from the start to truth. Hence, the supposition of our equal or neutral orientation to truth and falsity is illusory. Moreover, our orientation to truth is at once the condition of the possibility of knowledge and an orientation to knowledge as a good. More, it is intrinsically life-enhancing, since, first of all, it attunes us to the world and, second, prompts the fruitful question of whether the world, too, is ordered to the good.

Nietzsche was acutely aware of the foundational status of the drive to truth. Unless it were challenged and discredited, denial of the possibility of objective knowing, e.g., of correct interpretations, would not hold. Reading could not be reduced to the simple importation of meaning to the text being read. It would not be possible to discredit the enterprise of history. But once we are disembarrassed of the pure desire to know, it is possible: to maintain that intellectual conscience is sheer bias, and self-reversal, “trivial.” Meantime, Nietzsche. Heidegger, and Derrida have all expected to be read in accord with their intended meaning, and have complained (sometimes passionately) when readers failed to oblige: one more perfect example of self-reversal.

Some of the “main things wrong with deconstruction” recall Carlyle’s complaint about wonder dying out. What are we doing when we give ourselves over to wonder? We are on our way to poetry or philosophy or both. Wonder, in any case, is a response transcending the cognitive capacities of animals. It is a pivotal moment in properly human knowing. It begins with what one sees or hears or tastes or imagines or remembers, but x goes beyond all these to the question. We make our wondering thematic in questions, and we need only examine our questions to discover that wonder is not only not limited to the seen or heard, the imagined or remembered. It can go beyond the actual to the possible, and beyond the real to the ideal. If we posit any limit at all on wonder, we may go on to wonder about the limit, about whether it holds, and about what might lie beyond it. So step by step we find imposed on us the freedom of wonder, its utter unrestrictedness. By wonder we set ourselves in relation to anything and everything, the possible or the actual, the merely logical or mathematical, the finite or infinite. Wonder is our window on the all. It is our intending of being in any and all of its modes.

Contrast the senses. We see what is colored, on condition that the eye is functioning and the colored object is lighted. We hear what sounds. We take apart and put together in imagination sights we have seen and sounds we have heard. But we cannot see sounds, nor hear colors, nor imagine mathematical definitions. Wonder is different. If sight both intends and attains colored lighted objects, wonder intends the whole realm of being—and the acts that follow up on questioning, i.e., question-answering and answer-checking (provided that the answers are intelligent and the checking of them rigorous), attain it. Such is the realism that runs from Aristotle through Aquinas down to our time, the point at which Lonergan formulated it critically.

We should linger a moment over these claimed oversights and omissions of deconstruction. How have we managed to elude the Kantian law of limits? We began by observing that wonder is an unrestricted act of intending; that, made thematic by questions, it is satisfied when the questions are satisfactorily answered. Now we add that Kant overlooked something. A crucial aspect of the experience of wonder is that by it we are immediately related to whatever we wonder about. Immediate relation of subject to object is not, then, restricted to sense knowledge, for wonder is irreducible to the sphere of the senses. It is dependent on sense knowledge, but finds, “reads,” something new in it: some need or call for intelligible unity or relation. Questioning, as the mere making-explicit of wonder, shares in the immediate relation to objects as intelligible, to all orders of objects, not only logical entities, mathematical ideas, and imaginary figures, but to that whole order of the real that all such objects of wonder suppose. This grounds the possibility of cognitively attaining the real. The possibility is converted into actuality whenever questions about the real terminate in judgments that are rigorously reasonable, so showing that a given act of understanding was and is accurate.

The theme of language evokes another “main thing wrong with deconstruction.” Language allows us to communicate our wonder, our questions, our discoveries, our life to others and to learn of their reactions, experiences, counter-questions, and counter-answers. It is a peerless mode of communication, at once a resource we make use of and something like a world we share with others. Orwell seized on the first of these two aspects when he spoke of language as “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” He was aware of the second aspect, as well. But he was entirely free of the temptation to misconceive it, as Heidegger did, as autonomous. According to Heidegger, language “speaks” (die Sprache spricht). Derrida and the deconstructionists followed Heidegger, deliberately collapsing the distinction between language as such and the particular utterances by which we, and only we, make it determinate.

Of course, this act of making language determinate calls for some skill. At its best, it is an element of style. The test of lucidity, as Evelyn Waugh defined it, is whether a statement can be read as meaning anything other than what it intends. The art of the deconstructionist is to make “style” meaningless, except as a feature of deconstructionist reading. The trick is to show that anything can be read as meaning something other than what it intends. Lucidity is illusion.

But this deconstructive thesis is burdened by a drawback: it is, once again, self-reversing. For the deconstructionist hasn’t a hope in the world of holding his audience or readership unless he exhibits just those traits that the theory contends are impossible. The essays in Deconstruction and Criticism, which brought the theory to attention in America in 1979, not the least enjoyable of which is the essay of Derrida, are sometimes witty, for the most part lucid, always or nearly always perfectly decipherable—virtues that inadvertently reveal the recurrent vice of deconstructive theory, its fatally self-reversing denial that such virtues are possible. What holds for writing holds furthermore for reading. Our only way of finding out from the deconstructionists about their theory lies in our performing just those acts of construal that deconstruction repudiates as, if not impossible, then hopelessly naive.

The root of this particular self-reversal lies in the confounding of the traits of language as such with the traits of the particular utterances that constitute discourse. But why would anyone seize on this possibility? The answer seems to be that many of us are in flight from the existential subject. In his posthumously published notes on Heidegger, Karl Jaspers pondered “the forgetfulness of the Self” that was the peculiarly Heideggerian form of the forgetfulness of being. For all his fierce attention to the existentials that qualified human existence, Heidegger from the start of his philosophic career was in full flight from the subject. This is what accounts for what William Barrett has called “the hole at the center” of Heidegger’s view of the human being, as well as for a certain “desolate and empty quality” in the thought of Heidegger as a whole.

But why? Why this flight from the subject? Was there some inner demand for it set up by the basic terms and relations in Heidegger’s thinking? Was the omission requisite to the system? The question, whether posed of Heidegger or of Derrida, is perhaps unanswerable. It turns on whether the end result in the thinking of the one or the other was determined by his resolutely following, step by step, a track into the unknown; or whether the end result was present from the outset, beckoning, summoning decisions in its favor, shaping the premises of argument, bending them toward the abyss.

This mysterious evasion, or flight, or deflection from the subject has a history well before Heidegger. The Scotists and nominalists fastened on the will; Kant on practical reason; the pragmatists on results. But, as Lonergan put it:

Results proceed from actions, actions from decisions, decisions from evaluations, evaluations from deliberations, and all five from the existential subject, the subject as deliberating, evaluating, deciding, acting, bringing about results.

It is as if the I and its fortunes, always at stake in deliberation and evaluation, in decision and in action and in their results, was charged with some ultimately dreadful dimension, and that we all somehow know this. What is this dimension? It has to do, it seems, with the hunger of the human subject to be, and with the fear that such being is somehow threatened by the acts of the subject as subject. The flight tends toward what Barrett calls the death of the soul.

Deconstructive theory, though neither true nor deep, has exercised an undeniable charm. It recalls Plato’s Phaedrus, and the charm that Lysias’ destructive discourse on love had for the young and impressionable Phaedrus. This may make one think of deconstruction as a kind of sophistry. On the other hand, what is deep about deconstruction is the alienation that the theory rationalizes. To judge from the theory, it is alienation from fundamental features of the human situation and vocation, and in this deconstruction is more properly akin to gnosticism. Even if, as now seems likely, deconstruction is nearing its end in our place and time, it will come back, as sophistry and gnosticism always do, but in some new form, with something of sophistry’s reduction of life and thought to self-serving rational technique, and something of gnosticism’s bitter alienation from the world.

Years ago, as contemporary ideology was just beginning to take hold in literary studies, Lionel Trilling remarked that those who at the time were hailing madness as a superior form of sanity did not plan to go mad themselves. In time such inner contradiction is always fatal. Hence the advantage of being over its parasitic contraries. We cannot help ourselves. From our depths we are oriented to the real, now despite everything hopelessly enchanted, by being as we know and live it, by its density and by its poignant beauty. Some of those who briefly seemed in flight from it are even now turning back to it, and others will inevitably follow; back to the real that we know and are, back to what Philip Larkin called that “million-petalled flower / Of being there.”

Ben F. Meyer, a regular contributor to First Things, teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.