Legacies of Paul de Man
"At the Far End of this Ongoing Enterprise..."
Sara Guyer, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Guyer argues that in his introduction to a 1979 special issue of Studies in Romanticism Paul de Man both produces and precludes the possibility of his legacy. Guyer shows that while de Man accuses his students of betraying him through their blind faithfulness, this apparent betrayal does not resolve the question of de Man's legacy, but rather leaves as de Man's legacy the question of legacy itself. This essay appears in _Legacies of Paul de Man_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.
The master is destined, then, not to smooth out the field of relations but to upset it, not to facilitate the paths of knowledge,
but above all to render them not only more difficult, but truly impracticable.
—Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation
Paul de Man's brief introduction to the 1979 issue of Studies in Romanticism devoted to the "Rhetoric of Romanticism" might be understood as his most explicit treatment of the question of legacy. The introduction is a strange and often contradictory text in which de Man provides an historico-fictional account of his own "generation"—understood synchronically and diachronically, both as a group of individuals and as an act of genesis. At the same time, by editing a volume of work by his students, de Man here introduces a "generation," one that already in 1979 is understood to be his issue.
De Man initially intended this special issue on "The Rhetoric of Romanticism"—which shares its title (in advance) with his own posthumous collection of essays on Wordsworth, Kleist, Shelley, Hölderlin, and Yeats—to be an outlet for work emerging from his 1977-78 NEH seminar. Yet, the final table of contents includes only two essays—Stephen J. Spector's "Thomas de Quincey: Self-Effacing Autobiographer" and William Ray's "Suspended in the Mirror: Language and the Self in Kleist's 'Über das Marionettentheater'"—that originated in the NEH seminar.1 The remaining essays, by Cynthia Chase, Barbara Johnson, Timothy Bahti, and E.S. Burt, developed from de Man's regular graduate courses at Yale. In some obvious sense, then, de Man's introduction responds to the question of the relation between the work introduced and his instruction of its authors. In other words, the essay responds to the implicit question—phrased in the idiom of Kleist's "Marionettentheater," the occasion of de Man's most sustained discussion of pedagogy—of whether or not, in pulling a few strings to gather these essays and get them published, he also "pulls their strings."2 At the same time, the introduction raises other questions—about the relation between scholarship and pedagogy more generally, about literary history, inheritance, and freedom. Do de Man's voice and authority alone give these essays their motion and their force? Are these essays, like an automaton, moved by an external generator, rather than by their own spontaneous or automotive energy? And, if so, is this external generation also the source of their extraordinary elegance? Is it the authoritative teacher himself who allows for their "light touch," that is, for the very grace that he will claim distinguishes their work from his and exposes the "awkward" and "lopsided" efforts of his generation, the very grace that he goes so far as to suggest also means his death?3 What is de Man's relation to his students' virtuosic displays of rigorous reading, that is, what is his relation to this putative legacy? What is his relation to it as legacy, and what, if anything, does de Man's introduction have to do with this legacy's production—or for that matter, its foreclosure?
From the outset, David Wagenknecht, the editor of Studies in Romanticism, questioned the work's capacity to stand on its own. On 10 April 1978, upon having read Timothy Bahti's "Figures of Interpretation, The Interpretation of Figures: A Reading of Wordsworth's 'Dream of the Arab,'" Wagenknecht wrote to de Man to say that the essay could appear in the journal only if de Man took responsibility for it and for the issue as a whole:
Was it Huckleberry Finn who said of Pilgrim's Progress the statement was interesting but tough? In my case I have to confess the toughness finally overcame my interest: my erasures in the margins reflect an original annoyance which I found more difficult to overcome than to erase. The style, which simultaneously maximizes fussiness and vagueness—verbal operatives tend to be so abstract that almost anything can be related to, equilibrated with, adequated to anything else—caused me at last to mourn for Wordsworth. But I made up my mind to be more manly, to overcome prejudice, and to press on. Having done so, my attitude remained fundamentally the same. (Paul de Man Papers MS-C 4)4
In a confessional (which here is also a fictional) mode, Wagenknecht complains that despite his best efforts at engagement, Bahti's essay left his energies "overcome." Yet beyond his distress with Bahti's style, this difficulty seems due, at least in part, to belief in reading as a dialectical practice. Paralyzed by the essay—and its relentless verbal chain—Wagenknecht calls upon his "manliness" to help him overcome his paralysis. But to no avail. The failed labor of attempted negation (the negation of prejudice, and weakness more generally) leads to further frustration, and thus to the recovery of dialectical practice beyond reading in mourning. Yet, rather than mourn a loss of virility or the apparent failure of dialectics, Wagenknecht laments the loss of the subject of Bahti's essay: Wordsworth himself.5 For unlike Wordsworth's poetry, which puts the reader "in the company of flesh and blood," Bahti's essay threatens the reader's manliness and power of mind. Rather than fulfill the romantic project through its contemporary criticism, Bahti's essay, in Wagenknecht's account, leaves its subject dead.6
In aligning the possibility of reading Bahti's essay with the necessary admission of Wordsworth's death, Wagenknecht implies that Bahti is responsible for this death—or at least for its actualization. Moreover, Bahti is held responsible not only for sacrificing Wordsworth (a dead man), but for a sacrificial "assault" against "the man Harold Bloom has called 'the most defiantly Wordsworthian of modern critics,'" Geoffrey Hartman, Bahti's living teacher, who has most rigorously accounted for the dialectical, which is also to say, sacrificial, structure (Akedah) at work in Wordsworth's poetry (Bahti 607).7 Bahti's treatment of Hartman thus leads Wagenknecht to consider the essay in the context of a scene of instruction—and raises the question, which will recur in de Man's introduction, of the violence that constitutes that scene.
In his letter to de Man, Wagenknecht praises—and also dismisses—Bahti's piece as "a brilliant graduate student 'performance.'" He calls "honest" the fact that Bahti devotes the first nine pages of his essay to Hartman, but then admits that "the consequent impression that this is a very parochial, intra-Yale performance is very unpleasant" (Wagenknecht's emphasis).8 He explains that "it is sometimes difficult for the reader less obsessed with [Hartman's] texts than the author is even to derive a clear sense of what Hartman was talking about," and he proceeds to worry that an essay caught between "obsequiousness" and "assault" against one's teacher "begins to suggest unpleasant things about life in graduate school."9 Indeed, for Wagenknecht the "unpleasant" performance—this performance of unpleasantness—seems to be an Oedipal performance, a performance, he insists, that has less to do with the reading of texts than it does with the relations between students and their teachers. Yet, if it is the essay's violent "obsession" with Hartman that Wagenknecht finds suspect, and if it is Bahti's claim that mediation in Hartman is not a work of mind but of trope that he finds interesting, if not completely convincing, he responds not by holding Bahti finally accountable for the assault, but rather by inviting de Man to account for the work of his student and to become the issue's guest editor.10 Wagenknecht agrees to publish Bahti's paper in Studies in Romanticism only on the condition that de Man will accept responsibility for its violence. As he tells de Man: "I think that there should be clear indication that the editorial choices were finally yours, that the issue in the last analysis, has a guest editor. To me—should this be your inclination—this would all the more imply the necessity of an introductory preface by yourself discussing the seminar and explaining your attitude toward the various essays" (de Man MS-C 4). Wagenknecht sets de Man up as the teacher, and does so with the full acknowledgement that to be a teacher to these students is also to risk being their victim.
After several months of silence, de Man finally responds to Wagenknecht: he submits a table of contents for the volume, defends the publication record of the other essays' authors (Johnson, Chase, and Burt), and agrees "to write a brief introduction about the methodological assumptions that stand behind the choice and the treatment of the topic" (de Man 5 October 1978).11 As an essay on the scene of instruction as well as a key moment in it, this introduction—like Wagenknecht's letter—bears witness to the essays' violence. It registers not only the carefully articulated assault against Hartman or the thoroughgoing disarticulation of Wordsworth, but also the violence disguised by loyalty and discipleship.
At first glance, the introduction seems a complex, even defensive, response to Wagenknecht's double request. In it, de Man offers both an argument about the event of these papers (one that resonates with his introduction to Carol Jacobs's The Dissimulating Harmony) and an exemplary autobiographical account of the study of romanticism from the 1950s to the 1970s. The introduction opens with an apparent rejoinder to Wagenknecht's dismissal of Bahti's essay as the acting out of an infantile drama performed in a local idiom. De Man begins:
The essays collected in this issue come as close as one can come, in this country, to the format of what is referred to, in Germany, as an Arbeitsgruppe, an ongoing seminar oriented towards open research rather than directed by a single authoritative voice. Some of the papers originated in a year-long seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities conducted at Yale during the year of 1977-78. It was entitled "The Rhetoric of Romanticism," and the title seemed suitable enough to be retained in this expanded version of the initial group. The additional papers were often written in connection with various graduate seminars, but it would be an injustice to see in them only the products of a single "school" or orthodoxy, thus reducing their challenge to mere anecdote. (495)
The essay initially describes not the success of these works, but their limitation: "They come as close as one can come" to an Arbeitsgruppe—to this truly democratic possibility of free inquiry and "open research," a possibility that remains for de Man paradoxically unrealizable within an American (rather than a German) institution—and in a seminar organized through and funded by the NationalEndowment for the Humanities.12 Yet whether this lingering authoritarianism is attributed to national or personal identity, it indicates that the essays, whose freedom and innovation he will recognize, also fail to constitute a truly open seminar. Rather, gathered under the title of the NEH seminar that de Man organized, they appear to be indistinguishable, at least in name, from the work of Paul de Man.13 However, as soon as he states these essays' only limited freedom, he also claims that it would be an "injustice" to understand them as "products of a single 'school' or orthodoxy" or as the echo of "a single authoritative voice." It would be an injustice, because this attribution would coincide with the avoidance of reading—the substitution of a history of the works' formation for the difficulty of their reading, and thus the assumption that one knows in advance what these essays say and do. Indeed the substitution not only would be fallacious and limited, but it also would rely upon an inaccurate and ideological version of history. More than merely claim this, de Man claims that the papers demonstrate it—which is precisely the reason why they must be read. While they may have emerged in connection with a seminar that did not fully eschew the authoritative voice of its teacher, these essays—despite their ambitions—ultimately break with, rather than sustain, his lesson. They inherit not a methodology (despite de Man's acknowledgement of the remarkable closeness of their reading), but a textual object (the romantic canon).14
Nevertheless, the event of these essays proves to be indissociable from the question of de Man's legacy, and this becomes especially clear when de Man registers the opposition between their event and an historical (or psychoanalytic) account of their emergence:
Both in what these papers have in common and in what sets them apart from each other, something is happening that is by no means confined to the idiosyncracies of a particular configuration of individuals. It has to do with a larger question which can be considered as a generational process—although this perspective, too, is misleading; one can as little wish away the innovative and subversive impact of these essays by attributing it to Oedipal struggles as to academic provincialism. The validity of a genetic or generation model for literary history is one of the received ideas that the papers leave behind. It is a matter of chance that the contributors turn out to belong by and large to the same generation, thus providing at least a conveniently fallacious point of view from which to attempt a collective characterization of their achievement.15
To insist that "something is happening" here is to acknowledge this work as an event. In happening and so in differing (indeed in differing from itself)—despite all aim and intention—this work involves a rupture, one that de Man cautions against domesticating through a fiction of generation (whether construed as a narrative of cultural mythology or intellectual history).
De Man sets out by looking beyond the obvious "idiosyncrasies of a particular configuration of individuals" (e.g., the generation of students who studied literature with de Man at Yale in the 70s) in order to recognize their evocation of "a larger question which can be considered as a generational process." If "generational process" names the event of this work—generation understood as temporalization (and temporalized) rather than as a stable configuration of individuals—it does so as a question, the question of generation itself, and the mark of generation's constitutive incompletion ("Is something happening?" And further: "If something is happening, what is happening?" "Is nothing happening?" "Can nothing happen?").16 Generation—as a generational process—comes to signal a truly temporal predicament: it signals the impossibility of a birth just the same as a death.17
And so, it is in calling for a reading of this work rather than for an account of its emergence that Paul de Man's own life—his history, his survival, his legacy—comes into question. While de Man claims that the pieces themselves invalidate an historical account that would position them as his legacy or as a Yale production, it is not only their abandonment of "a genetic or generational model for literary history" that challenges the charge of "academic provincialism." Rather, what de Man calls their "innovative and subversive impact" already indicates the displacement of and difference from their teacher that their mimesis enacts. While refusing to read the essays merely as following in his own footsteps, and refusing to reduce their violence and their impact to an "Oedipal struggle," de Man nevertheless frames their event as a betrayal. In stating the radicality of the work collected here, de Man disavows responsibility for it (a gesture that is indistinguishably generous and dismissive), and goes so far as to call the work that would appear to be the legacy of his seminar the instrument of his own death.18 To say (as de Man does) that "something is happening," and that what is happening "is by no means confined to a configuration of individuals" (495), is also to say that what occurs is a generation that exceeds generation. There is a generational process beyond generational models, a generation that withholds grasping and maintains itself in the form of a question of generation, a generation as the event of generation, that is also, and indistinguishably, a generation without generation. Yet, the claim to this work's importance and its event beyond narrative, the claim to its generation beyond generation, remains a devastating accusation.
In order to elaborate his accusation, de Man offers a lengthy (and surprising) parable of his generation and its emergence. The narrative of his generation—a generation whose attachment to the study of romanticism he attributes to guilt, anxiety, and failure—calls into question the enduring status of genetic models of literary history supposedly eschewed by this generation.19 Like the narratives that would account for the emergence of the work introduced here, this narrative only can be a literary example. However, it begins in an uncomfortably avuncular tone and a clichéd or mechanical idiom in de Man's suggestion that when "people of my generation" began to write, they suffered. They actually had to confront Romanticism as a question of history; they actually had to face up to betraying their elders:
People of my generation (now roughly speaking in their fifties) interested in Romanticism began to write in the shadow of historical works that considerably refined on preconceived notions of periodization but without losing the sense of historical order to which these works owed their learning and aesthetic discrimination. The answer to such questions as: What is (or was) Romanticism and did such a thing ever occur? became increasingly difficult to formulate but the question itself continued to make sense. (495-96)
De Man's description of his generation suggests the extent to which he is its product, not despite, but because of, his abandonment of history for theory. The fact that, as he explains in its preface, The Rhetoric of Romanticism—his only book on romanticism—is a fragmentary collection of essays "establish[ed]" by his editor, rather than the historical reflection that he intended Allegories of Reading to be, indicates not the abandonment of history for theory, but the resistance of history and the so-called "historical outlook."20 This claim, on the one hand, relies upon the fiction of generation that domesticates the difficulty of reading and situates de Man's failure to effect an historical study as an historical or generational effect. But it also recognizes de Man's enduring attachment to romanticism (despite his "more theoretical inquiries into the problems of figural language" [RR viii]) as sustaining "the sense of historical order" that dominated the work of his elders.21 De Man explains that although his teachers' work led many of the more faithful students of his generation to "start out with the ambition to write their own syntheses or summae of Romanticism" (on the model of their teachers), no volumes of this sort ever were produced. "For all I know," de Man continues, "some may still be about to succeed, yet the fact remains, looking back over the production of the last twenty years, that no general works on Romanticism were produced comparable in scope and serenity to those of the previous decades. More important perhaps, the reasons for this apparent failure became themselves part of the problem" (496).22 Allegories of Reading, which appeared in the same year as the Studies in Romanticism issue, is one of these failures. In its preface, de Man explicitly aligns his work—his desire for and failure to execute an historical project, the interruption of narrative by reading, and the remainder of history as a canon—with that of his generation:
Allegories of Reading started out as a historical study and ended up as a theory of reading. I began to read Rousseau seriously in preparation for a historical reflection on Romanticism and found myself unable to progress beyond local difficulties of interpretation. In trying to cope with this, I had to shift from historical definition to the problematics of reading. This shift, which is typical of my generation, is of more interest in its results than in its causes. It could, in principle, lead to a rhetoric of reading reaching beyond the canonical principles of literary history which still serve, in this book, as the starting point of their own displacement. (AR ix; my emphasis)
If Allegories of Reading is not an "historical reflection on Romanticism," if it is the failure or the interruption of that work, this may not be exactly the same as saying—as de Man will say—that it is "in no way a book about romanticism or its heritage" (RR viii). At stake in this description is the very interruption of cognitive and performative language that de Man explains will emerge in the book itself—i.e., the interruption of the difference between a book about romanticism (cognitive, constative) and a book of romanticism and its disruption (performative).23 In each of these cases, the introductory apparatus raises the question of history and generation—the question of romanticism and the trace of its enduring order on the work of Paul de Man. And, in the introduction to the volume of Studies in Romanticism (as, in the forward to the second edition of Blindness and Insight), the constellation of historical and generational questions emerges as inextricable from guilt and betrayal.24
Scholars of his generation, de Man claims, discovered the impossibility of carrying out the work of their teachers. Their desire to write "syntheses or summae of Romanticism" left them—like the Jena Romantics in Blanchot's description—without work in the unproductive discovery "that the writing of literary history and the reading of literary texts are not easily compatible." They discovered that "distinctions become so diversified that no discussion of generations, movements, or specific experiences of consciousness is any longer conceivable" (497-98). Yet, de Man's account of this discovery, the discovery of his generation, emerges in a narrative of his generation, the very narrative that here is rendered impossible.
At the zero-point of his reflection—the point at which the inconceivability of a discussion "of generations, movements, or specific experiences of consciousness" (in the case of romanticism) occurs within a narrative "of generations, movements [and] specific experiences of consciousness," de Man not only describes, but also dramatizes, the double bind of his generation. Indeed, the account he provides is indissociable from the predicament whose discovery he reports in it. In other words, his narrative is an example of the trap that it presents. It is an allegory, or what de Man calls his "invention," the invention of a "generation," and at the same time it indicates invention's impossibility:
Caught between historical norms inherited from their predecessors and their own reading practice, the 'generation' which, for the sake of convenience, I have chosen to invent (and to which no individual will exactly correspond), finds itself in an awkward double bind, reflected in writings that are lopsided in their emphasis on textual analysis as compared to the paucity of the historical results to which they continue to aspire. The tension produced frustrating books and teachers, skillful at best in the techniques of reading but inconclusive with regard to the problems which the readings discover. That so many remained selectively interested in Romanticism is clear evidence of a persistent commitment to the historical outlook that keeps haunting the textual analyses as their bad conscience. (498)
In the first place, invention refers to the fictional status of the generation that de Man calls his own. It is not what invented or produced him, but rather what he "has chosen to invent." If this means, as he explains, that the genealogical narrative he provides apparently has no referent, his identification of its fictional—indeed fabular—status does not lead him to abandon this narrative. Rather, as soon as he dismisses its referential function and claims this narrative a fable or invention rather than an accurate report, he also produces the referent that he denies. He renders—in a manner that runs counter to expectation—an account of "the study of romanticism [that] would also necessarily be a reflection on our own historical predicament, our history."25 De Man's fable refers at the very instant that it invents. His dismissal of the referential truth of his narrative occurs within a narrative that recovers his dismissal of this "generation" as an invention without referent. It generates the referent whose existence it denies. This specular (self-referential or autobiographical) structure neutralizes the interruptive power of de Man's claim to invention and allows the narrative of generation to proceed without incident. With his generation, de Man demonstrates what Jacques Derrida has called the "invention of the impossible," the impossible invention, as the only invention possible.26
In fact the failure (and fable) of this invention — it is a failure because what he claims has no referent is reflected in the text that claims to invent it — can be understood to constitute the "double bind" in which, de Man goes on to explain, "this generation" finds itself. This "generation" emerges as an invention not because it lacks a referent (it is self-referential: the text enacts the predicament de Man reports), but because it is the (textual) emergence of the unprecedented (which may be another way of calculating fiction). Here, invention is a coming into existence rather than (as, and despite) the denial of existence. Invention (the invention of a generation, of this generation) cannot maintain the purity of its fictional or fabular status.27
What matters here is that the double bind—the "tension"—that de Man renders and describes (i.e., that he invents) bears upon teaching.28 For de Man, this double bind, far from being a reflection of the "authoritative voice" that he describes at the essay's opening, instead "produced frustrating books and teachers"—books and teachers that remain "inconclusive" rather than synthetic or summative, books and teachers trapped in the double imperative of close textual analysis and a conflicted yet "persistent commitment to the historical outlook."29 While these scholars over and again discover their own duplicity, they also fail to resolve it. Moreover, their enduring attachment to "the historical outlook" becomes, in de Man's account, inextricable from an attachment to romanticism, and romanticism ("our contemporary") becomes inextricable from the double bind of reading and history. In this respect, the "methodological assumptions that stand behind the choice and the treatment of the topic," and which de Man promised his introduction would explain, are not deliberate or rational, but, at least in the case of de Man's (invented) generation, are the effect of an irrepressible—indeed, "haunting"—inheritance. Romanticism is the sign of their "bad conscience."30
De Man's admission of romanticism as his generation's bad conscience sounds the moral of his tale, and it shapes the lesson that he offers to (and performs upon) his students. Whereas "Romanticism" signals the unexamined residue of "genetic or monumental patterns of history" (499), which is to say, whereas the enduring study of Romanticism in the work of his intellectual contemporaries indicates the enduring (in a "common" understanding of it) romanticism of their work and thus the bad conscience of close reading, de Man explains, in conclusion, that what is striking about the papers that he presents here is their apparent freedom from the disarticulations of neurotic attachment. He explains:
The papers in this issue of Studies in Romanticism are remarkably free from this feeling of guilt. They perform their parricide with such a light touch that the target may not even realize what has hit him. The scope is certainly not wider, far from it. . . The selective corpus grows smaller and smaller and gets stuck, at times on a sentence, a title, or a word. But far from causing anxiety, the authors wrest their best findings from these obsessive interrogations. Techniques of rhetorical, as opposed to thematic, analysis are used with remarkable ease, with none of the nervousness which, speaking for myself, makes me feel as if someone were looking over my shoulder whenever thematic assertions can be shown to be subservient to rhetorical overdeterminations. (498)
Here de Man accounts for two forms of guilt: on the one hand, the guilt suffered by those who remain attached to "the historical outlook," the guilt indicated by a continued attachment to the romantic canon, despite the insistence of rhetorical reading, and, on the other hand, the guilt that attends a rhetorical reading in which "thematic assertions can be shown to be subservient to rhetorical overdeterminations." These two sources of bad conscience are directly at odds: one is ordered by attachment; the other, by disavowal. It becomes clear that the competing tensions they produce would amount to frustration and paralysis. Yet, de Man attributes this work's graceful, rather than awkward, paralysis to an absence of guilt, a clear conscience that would follow from faithfully executing the de Manian lesson; and he attributes its ease and elegance, but above all its "best findings," to this capacity to remain stuck without any anxiety whatsoever. While his anxiety follows from breaking at once too much and too little from his teachers, the essays here, unlike the "frustrating books" of his generation, emerge as the work of good students, burdened neither by the inheritance of history nor the pressure on their inheritance that their readings produce. Nevertheless, the paralysis that marks the papers in this issue—coupled with the serenity of their limited scope—signals, as de Man implies, not the fulfillment, but the betrayal of a legacy.31 The assumption of the fulfillment of a legacy masks the extent of its betrayal, the betrayal that de Man uses his introduction to identify. Indeed, the confidence with which these papers carry out de Man's project and pedagogy relies upon genealogy rather than close reading, the reading that de Man solicits in his essay's final sentences.
De Man criticizes this work in words almost indistinguishable from praise (and bordering on resentment)—"The selective corpus grows smaller and smaller and gets stuck, at times, on a sentence, a title or a word. But far from causing anxiety, the authors wrest their best findings from these obsessive interrogations," or "Tropes are taken apart with such casual elegance that the exegeses can traverse the entire field of tropological reversals and displacements with a virtuosity that borders on parody" (498)—and he implies that close reading in these essays remains a moment within a dialectic of understanding, rather than its disruption. Thus, de Man points out that the "clarity," calmness and "casual elegance" of these papers takes the place of the "awkwardness," "lopsidedness," and "inconclusiveness" that marked the work of his generation. He implies that, rather than being merely an improvement upon the work of their predecessors in the resolution of their difficulties, these papers continue to discover difficulties, but because the authors recognize difficulty as the ambition of reading, their work continues on, nonplussed. It is in this sense—and in this absence of struggling awkwardness, even in their seeming awkwardness—that the papers fail to emulate the models "held up to them." However, their failure is an effect of their responsiveness to teaching. Close reading does not leave these papers struggling, but, to the contrary, as de Man says of Carol Jacobs's book, in them "the demonstration of . . . necessary incoherence becomes a remarkably sound narrative" (CW 223). This absence of anxiety should lead to a second anxiety, the anxiety that de Man admits to feeling "whenever thematic assertions can be show to be subservient to rhetorical determinations" (498). The absence of this anxiety—freedom from the fear that this work could be an assault against one's teachers, rather than a respectful elaboration of their work—is evidence of disruption rather than continuity. However, this is a disruption that seems for the most part never to interfere with the essays' grace or narrative coherence.
Indeed, the "ease, lightness, and grace" that de Man recognizes in these papers makes them appear like the "unfortunates" who dance with prosthetic limbs in Kleist's "On the Marionette Theater."32 It is perhaps no accident that these papers seem to move with the fabricated legs that replace the awkward and unsightly immobility of amputation with "a virtuosity that borders on parody" (498). Yet de Man reminds us that this grace, as if the effect of prosthesis, signals only more broken legs — and in the French of Jacques Derrida rather than the English of Kleist's artists or of these young authors—broken legs that are a broken legacy. The essays' incomparable grace, as in the substitution of prosthesis for mutilation, hides the break of which it also is the evidence.
The violence hidden and demonstrated by elegance is what de Man calls a parricide, and this death (a broken leg, broken legacy) seems de Man's own. Blind to the violence that they wield against their elders, unaware that their essays are not the fulfillment of an inheritance but rather its disarticulation, and unburdened by the guilt or anxiety that their unconscious violence should command, these authors, de Man admits, keep their victim—a victim of their grace—oblivious as well. Like all death, this parricide remains an event foreign to consciousness and without proper witness. It remains unknown and unfelt by those good students whose imagined loyalty hides, but does not protect them from, this violence against their teacher; it also remains unknown, indeed unfelt, by the accusatory dead man who "may not even realize what has hit him."
Whereas de Man invented a generation in order to account for his relation to his teachers, he invents a parricide in order to account for his legacy. De Man's definition of these essays' violence as a parricide (not just murder, but murder of the father) admits the filiation (through violence and its prosthetic remedy) that he reads them to shatter. Moreover, while de Man establishes that the parricide will have taken place and recognizes that it is the actual, deadly outcome of this issue, he also acknowledges that it cannot take place, and remains what cannot be known to have taken place. As soon as he accuses these essays of violence, he also re-establishes (in a negative mode) their inheritance, their legacy as a broken legacy, and their generation. Thus, the accusation and recognition of a parricide becomes inseparable from the recovery of filiation, the production of guilt, and the insistence of an inheritance. By bearing witness to his own death, to a murder of which only he—and hence no one—is aware, de Man replaces the death he invents with the impossibility of dying.
It is in this sense that de Man appears like the Wordsworth he so famously describes. Proleptically speaking from beyond the grave and thus failing to recognize or know death in the moment when he claims to have suffered it, de Man presents the work of his students by accounting not for his influence on or generation of it (his pulling the strings), but for his own death through it. And yet, if in not killing the father, one kills him; if in killing the father one only fails to kill him—and leaves him living on beyond the death that never will have "hit" him—this is also because the murderous progeny (like Oedipus, blind in enterprise, and like the dancing amputees, graceful beyond measure) remain just as oblivious as he.
This recovery of filiation in parricide has its parallel in the more general return of history and ethics that de Man recognizes in these essays (and claims is their "most interesting occurrence of all") (498). As he describes:
At their strongest moments, the shape of another critical discourse begins to emerge, and the critical analysis of the figuration gropes for its own context. This is often accomplished by ways of psychoanalytical schemes of understanding that are no longer ego-centered or by performative modes disencumbered of ethical considerations. The most interesting occurrence of all is that, at the far end of this ongoing enterprise, the question of history and of ethics can be seen to reemerge though in an entirely different manner, no longer predicated, as it was for us, on identifiable evasions of complexities. It would be preposterous to try to state succinctly, in paraphrase, how this reemergence of history at the far side of rhetoric can be said to take place, as if one could spare oneself the labor of reading accomplished in these papers. They deserve at least to have some of their own rigor applied to themselves. Such a reading would reveal that the question of Romanticism can no longer be asked in the manner to which we are still accustomed and that, by extension, the genetic and monumental patterns that are commonly associated with Romanticism have lost much of their authority. The new problems that appear as a consequence are not less redoubtable, but it is exhilarating to capture the moment at which the emancipation is taking place. (498-99)
For all the grace of these essays, their power coincides with their lost footing, and emerges when the analysis no longer "traverse[s] the entire field of tropological reversals and displacements," but, stumbling, "gropes for its own context." What the papers demonstrate, then—indeed what a reading of them would "reveal"—is not "what a poetics of literature and a theory of reading could be on the far side of literary history" (Bahti, Allegories 293), but, rather, that the "reemergence of history at the far side of rhetoric" is the disruption of grace and the recovery of de Man's legacy. It is the return of history as interruption. And while rhetorical reading may abandon "the question of romanticism" (and not just the answers to this question, as de Man claims was the case for his generation), and while it may displace the "authority" of "genetic and monumental patterns"—of genealogy and generation, and of romanticism as their sign—this abandonment, de Man argues, also recovers the question of history and ethics. It returns the question with which this issue is concerned: the question of legacy and of the possibility of the de Manian legacy.
The return of the question of history and of ethics "at the far side of rhetoric" emerges as both the failure and the invention of this generation. In guiltlessly performing their disarticulation of texts, these essays display the negativity and the violence of romanticism. However, this negativity—and its difficulty—conceals the negativity and the difficulty that remain unmanageable. This residual negativity—the blind underside of elegance—coincides with the return of the question of history and ethics beyond rhetorical reading, and, in this respect, proves indissociable from the question of the relation of these works (and these authors) to the work and the teaching of Paul de Man. Rather than having overcome the anxiety that attends simultaneously violating and suffering an inheritance, rather than leaving behind, once and for all, the question of history and ethics, as the trauma and the sign of an inheritance (and of the unavoidable violence of pedagogy), these essays are numb both to the violence they endure and the violence they enact. Yet they are not, de Man suggests, as free as they seem. As they apparently follow his lesson, they murder the paternal figure. In this sense, the question of the legacy remains. It remains as the anxiety that this introduction cannot fail to produce and the filiation that it does not fail to recover. "Legacies of Paul de Man" coincide with the irremissibility of ethics and history, which, in de Man's own account, means his death and the impossibility of his dying. Yet the consciousness of this impossibility also remains another form of blindness, which is to say that this legacy bears the structure of an event.
* * *
It would have been tempting here, and at many points in this reading, to have considered de Man's essay—its association of history and guilt, its account of his generation's relation to the previous generation, and its apparent understanding of a certain approach to literary study—as being symptomatic of de Man's personal bad conscience, and to read this introduction as a rare but undeniable instance in which de Man, in accounting for his guilty attachment to romanticism and his guilty demonstrations of aesthetic ideology, might also be accounting for his own historical and political guilt. Read in this manner, the introduction then would seem to provide the evidence—often sought—of the bearing of de Man's wartime journalism upon his later literary criticism, and, by extension, on the work of his students. Depending upon the reader's desire or stance, this text would allow either for the indictment of literary theory and rhetorical reading (ahistorical, violent, etc.) or the discovery of a covert admission of guilt, one that would somehow allow us to understand de Man, not as having deceived his students, but as having forced them—already in 1979—to confront their teacher's bad conscience. Both of these scenarios would rely upon the same evidence and upon equally fallacious, which is to say, ideological, perspectives. It is tempting to read de Man's allegory of invention (which, as Derrida suggests, indicates an allegory of allegory and which we could extend to incorporate, to reflect and invent, the entire de Manian corpus) as a discreet allegory of his history. However, the non-possibility of appropriating this allegory to redeem or to kill (once again) Paul de Man also indicates the other side of this legacy: the endurance of the question of history and ethics beyond guilt and confession and their possible allegories, and beyond death—including the impossible murder that de Man here witnesses, the death by cancer that he suffers four years later, and the public outrage, confusion, and awkwardness that accompanies the discovery of his wartime journalism in 1984 (the same year that The Rhetoric of Romanticism posthumously appeared).
Bahti, Timothy. Allegories of History: Literary Historiography after Hegel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.
---. "Figures of Interpretation, The Interpretation of Figures: A Reading of Wordsworth's Dream of the Arab." De Man, ed. 601-28.
Blanchot, Maurice. L'entretien infini. Paris: Gallimard, 1969.
---. The Infinite Conversation. Trans. Susan Hanson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
---. The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
De Man, Paul. Aesthetic Ideology. Ed. Andrzej Warminski. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.
---. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
---. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Culture. 2nd Edition, Revised. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.
---. Critical Writings 1953-1978. Ed. Lindsay Waters. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.
---. Paul de Man Papers. MS-C 4. Special Collections and Archives, The UCI Libraries, Irvine, California. Box 8, Folder 31.
---. The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.
---. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.
---, ed. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Spec. issue of Studies in Romanticism 18: 4 (Winter 1979).
---. Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminar and other papers. Ed. E.S. Burt, Kevin Newmark, and Andrzej Warminski. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.
---. Wartime Journalism, 1939-1943. Ed. Werner Hamacher, et al. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.
Derrida, Jacques. Mémoires: Pour Paul de Man. Paris: Galilée, 1988.
---. Parages. Paris: Galilée, 1986.
---. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
---. "Psyche: Inventions of the Other." Trans. Carolyn Porter. Reading de Man Reading. Eds. Lindsay Waters and Wlad Godzich. Reading de Man Reading. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989, 25-65.
---. Psyché: Inventions de l'autre. Paris: Galilée, 1987.
Flesch, William. "De Man and Idolatry." Tainted Greatness: Antisemitism and Cultural Heroes. Ed. Nancy A. Harrowitz. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1994, 237-52.
Hamacher, Werner, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan, eds. Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1989.
Hartman, Geoffrey. Wordsworth's Poetry, 1787-1814. New Haven, Yale UP, 1964.
Keenan, Thomas. Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.
Kleist, Heinrich von. "On the Marionette Theater" Trans. Roman Paska. Fragments for a History of the Human Body Part 1. Ed. Michel Feher with Ramona Nadaff and Nadia Tazi. New York: Zone, 1989, 415-20.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Birth to Presence. Trans. Brian Holmes, et al. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995.
Wordsworth, William. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Ed. W.J.B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.
Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R.L. Brett and A.R. Jones. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge, 1991.
Thanks to the Special Collections librarians at the University of California, Irvine and to Mrs. Patricia de Man for allowing me to reprint archival materials. Thanks also to Steven Miller for conversations about parricide and to Tres Pyle for thinking with me about distant inheritances.
1 More than the other essays collected in the issue, these two seem to have direct bearing upon the introduction—both to the extent that they are explicit applications of de Man's readings (Ray's is undertaken in advance of and referred to in a footnote to de Man's own Kleist essay) and to the extent that they give a frame for the topics addressed in the introduction, even as they break that frame, because they are not the work of de Man's students in quite the same manner as the others. The other essays by members of the NEH seminar were not included.
2 For another version of this figure, one more explicitly linked to the question of legacy and initiating from Freud, rather than Kleist, see Jacques Derrida, "Freud's Legacy." Derrida reads Freud's legend of "fils" (strings/sons): "The legacy and jealousy of a repetition (already jealous of itself) are not accidents which overtake the fort: da, rather they more or less strictly pull its strings. And assign it to an auto-bio-thanato-hetero-graphic scene of writing. This scene of writing does not recount something, the content of an event which would be called the fort: da. This remains unrepresentable, but produces, there producing itself, the scene of writing" (Postcard 336). De Man's introduction concerns the question of the relation between legacy and the production of the scene of instruction.
3 See for example de Man's description of the dancing marionettes who have in them a potential for grace in excess of any human dancer as one model for this inheritance. This model acknowledges the puppeteer's charge over the graceful text: "The puppets have no motion by themselves but only in relation to the motions of the puppeteer, to whom they are connected by a system of lines and threads. All their aesthetic charm stems from the transformations undergone by the linear motion of the puppeteer as it becomes a dazzling display of curves and arabesques. By itself, the motion is devoid of any aesthetic interest or effect. The aesthetic power is located neither in the puppet nor in the puppeteer but in the text that spins itself between them" (RR 285).
4 Paul de Man Papers. MS-C 4. Special Collections and Archives, The UCI Libraries, Irvine, California. Box 8, Folder 31.
5 The mourned Wordsworth is presumably closer to the poet that Richard Mant mocked in TheSimpliciad (1808), than the one read in the essays of this letter's addressee.
6 See Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (250). That Bahti's essay might be understood to be "romantic" for precisely the reasons that Wagenknecht understands it to sacrifice Wordsworth and the Wordsworthians is a topic that will have to be taken up on another occasion.
7 The quote from Bloom appears on page 607 of Bahti's essay. Also key—but undiscussed in Wagenknecht's letter—is Bahti's "engagement" with J. Hillis Miller's essay on Wordsworth's "Dream of the Arab," which, at the time Bahti was writing, had appeared only in French. Bahti's discussion of Miller—largely in the mode of accolade and quotation—is relegated almost entirely to footnotes.
8 Bahti explains: "This [the structure whereby the figural always turns into the literal and vice versa] is a rhetorical understanding of a Wordsworthian (and more than Wordsworthian) rhetorical structure, but thus far we have approached it less through a reading of Wordsworth than through a reading of the reading offered by the man Harold Bloom has called 'the most defiantly Wordsworthian of modern critics'" (607). Wagenknecht of course refers to the draft version of the essay.
9 Perhaps it is no wonder then that what is at stake in de Man's introduction could be understood as the uncomfortable relation between obsequiousness and obsequy, that is, between the awkward coincidence of following one's teachers and issuing their burial rites.
10 At the end of this paragraph Wagenknecht tells de Man that Bahti's concluding claim that his rhetorical reading of the "Dream of the Arab" episode could be extended to other key passages, above all, those in Books VI and XIV in which "imagination would find itself in and of nature" (Bahti 626) "rang very hollow in my ears."
11 Wagenknecht finally tracks down de Man in Kruzlingen, Switzerland, and admits in a letter of 28 June 1978: "I think you've treated me cavalierly, and I'm mad as hell."
12 For a description of the model Arbeitsgruppe—to which de Man suggests his seminars do not match up—see the introduction to Timothy Bahti's 1982 translation of H.R. Jauss's Toward an Aesthetic of Reception also included under the title "Reading and History" in The Resistance to Theory. De Man explains: "By his own volition the work of the German literary historian and theorist Hans Robert Jauss has been associated with a study group for which he is a spokesman and which practices a specific way of investigating and teaching literature. In the field of literary theory, the existence of such groups is not an unusual occurrence. They are, at time, centered on a single, dominating personality and take on all the exacted exclusiveness of a secret society, with its rituals of initiation, exclusion, and hero-worship. Nothing could be more remote from the spirit of the group of which Jauss is a prominent member. The Konstanz school of literary studies, so named because several of its members taught or are teaching at the newly founded University of Konstanz in Southern German, is a liberal association of scholars, informally united by methodological concerns that allow for considerable diversity. It has the character of a continuing research seminar that includes some constant members (of which H.R. Jauss is one) next to more casual participants; a somewhat comparable instance of such a group, in structure, if not in content, would have been, in this country, the Chicago critics of the forties and fifties, who shared an interest in Aristotelian poetics" (RT 54). That de Man, three years after the introduction to Studies in Romanticism points to Chicago of the 50s rather than New Haven of the 70s in order to show "a comparable instance" of an Arbeitsgruppe indicates all the more the ambivalence of the introduction's opening, but in comparison with Jauss, this gesture also is self-implicating, reminding us, perhaps that it is "by his own volition" that de Man was associated with a study group centered around the authority of a dominating personality.
13 It has always struck me that the genitive structure of "The Rhetoric of Romanticism" requires some interrogation: romanticism is the trope under analysis and the tropes and figures of romanticism provide the terms of that analysis. It is in this sense that all of the works that appear under this ambivalent heading are not only studies of romanticism or of romantic-period writers, but are also studies of the critics of romanticism, a point made most evident in the posthumously published Gauss Lectures, which deal with not only Wordsworth, Hölderlin, and Rousseau, but also Heidegger, Starobinski, Girard, and Hartman.
14 This leads de Man to remark: "of all the coercions exercised by graduate instruction none is more tyrannical than the predetermination of the textual canon" (495).
15 An earlier, manuscript version of the introduction reveals that in the final sentence, de Man initially incorporated a pun on Derrida's essay on Blanchot, "The Law of Genre," and play on the relevance of romanticism to this discussion of generation: "It is a matter of chance that generations are not to be mixed in this collection and that the authors can be said authors turn out to belong by and large to the same generation. As a result, the temptation to comment on the ongoing interpretation of romanticism as a generational process is hard to resist." The phrase, as it appears in the opening sentence of Derrida's essay is "Ne pas mêler les genres" (Parages 251).
16 The unstable language of the event belongs to Jean-François Lyotard; see in particular his "The Sublime and the Avant-Garde." In that essay, Lyotard recalls that, for Barnett Newman, the now "is what dismantles consciousness, and what deposes consciousness, it is what consciousness cannot formulate, even what consciousness forgets in order to constitute itself" (90). Lyotard translates this non-consciousness—which we also could understand as the condition of generation or happening in de Man's essay—as a question mark, and states: "The event happens as a question mark 'before' happening as a question. It happens is rather 'in the first place' is it happening, is this it, is it possible? Only 'then' is any mark determined by the questioning: is this or that happening, is it this or something else, is it possible that this or that?" (90).
17 The figure of birth without birth, a birth into death, or a birth without life — which de Man will take from Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Carol Jacobs's reading of it—also appears in the final sentences of his foreword to Jacobs's book: "But whereas the apparent fluidity of Nietzsche's text turns out to be a stammer, the high quality of Carol Jacobs's readings threaten her with a worse danger. She cannot prevent her stammering text from being impeccably fluid. Parable turns into paraphrase after all, even and especially when one is as fully aware as she is of this inconsistency. The result is no longer the birth of something purely tragic, though it is certainly not benign. It may well be the birth of criticism as truly critical reading, a birth that is forever aborted and forever repeated but that, in the meantime, makes for indispensable reading" (CW 223). One way of figuring this entire predicament would be in terms of "liquidation."
18 William Flesch considers the "disdainful" aspect of de Man's praise here, and understands it to contribute to a transferential structure in de Man's pedagogical relations. He explains: "One way that I think de Man encouraged the transference was by taking a disdainful view of his disciples (see, for example, his introduction to the issue of Studies in Romanticism that he edited) but always making you feel that you were exempt from this otherwise general, though subtle, contempt, precisely because you could see the contempt he had for others (never your friends, though)—because you got the irony of his never quite believable praise of others. But of course you always believed it when he praised you" (240). Yet it is Flesch's account of transference that is most interesting to me in the context of an analysis of legacy. For example, in "Freud's Legacy," Derrida links transference to legacy in the formula: "no legacy without transference" (Postcard 339). This is not simply a statement of transference as the condition of legacy's possibility, but, as he elaborates: "Which also gives us to understand that if every legacy is propagated in transference, it can get underway only in the form of an inheritance of transference" ["pas de legs sans transfert. Cela donne aussi à entendre que, si tout legs se propage en trasfert, il n'est en train que dans la forme d'un héritage de trasfert"] (Postcard 339; Carte Postale 360). In some sense, this ambivalence may come down to the ambivalence of radicality (and rootedness) itself.
19 "Freud's Legacy" opens with a discussion of the difference in Freud between fear and anxiety, and Freud's account of anxiety as "more a protection against trauma, linked to repression" (Postcard 297). While I leave a comprehensive reading of Derrida's essay for another occasion, I do wish to point out that the recurring figure of the dance in his reading of Freud (the various "pas") raises the specter of Kleist's dancing marionettes and amputees. Indeed it is tempting and possible here to link the question of "legacy" (legs) to the marionette's dancing legs, to the grace whereby the seemingly proper or faithful inheritance (in this case of reading and of romanticism, of the rhetoric of romanticism—in advance) is also parricidal thanks to the unconsciousness of elegance and non-anxiety. In other words, anxiety is a prophylactic device not wholly dissimilar from grace, and both emerge as responses to the non-consciousness of a trauma.
20 See, for example, the preface to The Rhetoric of Romanticism: "This collection of essays on the general topic of European romantic and post-romantic literature was established at the initiative of William P. Germano, Editor-in-Chief at the Columbia University Press. . . .With the possible addition of the essay entitled "The Rhetoric of Temporality" (now reprinted in a new edition of Blindness and Insight), the collection presents the main bulk of what I have written on romanticism. Except for some passing allusions, Allegories of Reading is in no way a book about romanticism or its heritage" (vii).
21 As de Man says of The Rhetoric of Romanticism: "The principle of selection for this volume is clearly historical: all the essays deal with romantic poetry and its aftermath. The historical topology makes sense to the extent that the original papers were part of a project that was itself historically oriented. The choice of authors is banal enough to require no further justification" (vii). For a description of this project see E.S. Burt, Kevin Newmark, and Andrzej Warminski's "Editors' Preface" to de Man's Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism (a text that might be read as the inversion of the introduction to Studies in Romanticism): "[S]ince this romantic historical consciousness is, according to de Man, a powerful 'source' for our own consciousness, a historical study of romanticism would also necessarily be a reflection on our own historical predicament, our history. De Man had in fact projected such a historical study of romanticism, and, around 1968, had collected the Gauss lectures and his other essays on romantic texts in a manuscript volume entitled The Unimaginable Touch of Time" (viii).
22 For de Man's account of his own response to this predicament, see the preface to "his" The Rhetoric of Romanticism: "Such massive evidence of the failure to make the various individual readings coalesce is a somewhat melancholy spectacle. The fragmentary aspect of the whole is made more obvious still by the hypotactic manner that prevails in each of the essays taken in isolation, by the continued attempt, however ironized, to present a closed and linear argument. This apparent coherence within each essay is not matched by a corresponding coherence between them. Laid out diachronically in a roughly chronological sequence, they do not evolve in a manner that easily allows for dialectical progression or, ultimately, for historical totalization. Rather, it seems that they always start again from scratch and that their conclusions fail to add up to anything. If some secret principle of summation is at work here, I do not feel qualified to articulate it and, as far as the general question of romanticism is concerned, I must leave the task of its historical definition to others" (RR viii). Here de Man positions his "fragmentary" and suspended work in relation to the failed summae he describes in the Studies in Romanticism introduction.
23 He writes: "What emerges is a process of reading in which rhetoric is a disruptive intertwining of trope and persuasion or—which is not quite the same thing—of cognitive and performative language" (AR ix).
24 See, for example, the foreword to the second edition of Blindness and Insight: "I am not given to retrospective self-examination and mercifully forget what I have written with the same alacrity that I forget bad movies—although, as with bad movies, certain scenes or phrases return at times to embarrass and haunt me like a guilty conscience. When one imagines to have felt the exhilaration of renewal, one is certainly the last to know whether such a change actually took place or whether one is just restating, in a slightly different mode, earlier and unresolved obsessions" (xii).
25 Editors' Preface to Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism vii. The authors explain that "romantic historical consciousness is, according to de Man, a powerful 'source' for our own consciousness." For other versions of this claim see Cynthia Chase's introduction to the Longman Anthology of Romanticism and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute.
26 Cf. "For the other is not the possible. So it would be necessary to say that the only possible invention would be the invention of the impossible. But an invention of the impossible is impossible, the other would say. Indeed. But it is the only possible invention: an invention has to declare itself to be the invention of that which did not appear to be possible; otherwise it only makes explicit a program of possibilities within the economy of the same" ("Psyche: Inventions of the Other" 60).
27 On the fable, see Thomas Keenan's brilliant Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics. Keenan's work is helpful not only for thinking about "the rhetorical mechanism of the fable" and its relation to ethics and politics, but also for thinking further about the meaning and possibility of de Man's legacy.
28Tension evokes the entire specular metaphorics and the predicament of self-reflection as the impossibility of invention at work here, specifically the metaphorics of Psyche (as mirror and woman) rendered in terms of an inextricable temporality ("tense"). Minimally, Tension—the act or action of stretching—recalls Psyche—outstretched—as we find her in Freud and in Nancy. Jean-Luc Nancy, "Psyche" trans. Emily McVarish in The Birth to Presence (393); Jacques Derrida, Le Toucher Jean-Luc Nancy; Jacques Derrida, "Psyche: Inventions of the Other."
29 This recalls the trap (Fälle) that de Man discusses in the final paragraph of "Aesthetic Formalization in Kleist" and that Cynthia Chase will come to consider the in "Trappings of an Education," her contribution to Responses. De Man writes: "But Fälle also means 'trap,' the trap which is the ultimate textual model of this and of all texts, the trap of an aesthetic education which inevitably confuses dismemberment of language by the power of the letter with the gracefulness of a dance. This dance, regardless of whether it occurs as a mirror, as imitation, as history, as the fencing match of interpretation, or as the anamorphic transformations of tropes, is the ultimate trap, as unavoidable as it is deadly" (RR 290). I find it curious that the mention of a "trap" in the introduction to a volume in which her own essay on Wordsworth appears goes unmentioned in Chase's later essay.
30 For a particularly compelling account of an unconscious legacy articulated in terms of "haunting" and ventriloquism, see Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok's various accounts of the "Transgenerational Phantom," in particular Abraham's 1975 "Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to Freud's Metapsychology."
31 De Man's description of the scope ("certainly not wider, far from it") and serenity ("far from causing anxiety. . .") of these papers resonates with his description of the work of his predecessors—"no general works on Romanticism were produced comparable is scope and serenity to those of the previous decades" (496). It seems as if de Man's complaint is that these papers — as well as Jacobs's Dissimulating Harmony, against which he offers more or less the same criticism—are both limited in scope and untroubled by the difficulties they would seem to encounter. Granted, the criticism, if taken seriously, seems devastating—suggesting that this text not only describes a guiltless parricide, but also enacts a violent infanticide in the recovery of absent guilt, that is, in the accusation of parricide.
32 Cf. Kleist, "On the Marionette Theater": "'Have you,' he asked, as I cast my eyes silently to the ground, 'have you heard of those mechanical legs that English artists fabricate for the unfortunates who have lost their limbs?' I said no, I had never set eyes on such things. 'That's too bad,' he replied, 'for if I tell you that those unfortunates dance with them, I'm almost afraid you won't believe me. What am I saying! Dance? Certainly the range of their movements is limited; but those at their disposal are accomplished with an ease, lightness and grace that astonish every sensitive mind'" (416-17). De Man turns to these "dancing invalids" in the final paragraphs of his essay on Kleist's parable: "The dancing invalid in Kleist's story is one more victim in a long series of mutilated bodies that attend on the progress of enlightened self-knowledge, a series that includes Wordsworth's mute country-dwellers and blind city-beggars. The point is not that the dance fails and that Schiller's idyllic description of a graceful but confined freedom is aberrant. Aesthetic education by no means fails; it succeeds all too well, to the point of hiding the violence that makes it possible" (RR 289). In de Man's translation of Kleist, the phrase reads: "The circle of his motions may be restricted, but as for those available to him, he accomplishes them with an ease, elegance, and gracefulness which fills any thinking mind with amazement" (RR 288-89).