Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man’s former colleague, a Jew and, while not a scholar in Judaic studies, nonetheless a considerable presence in Jewish scholarship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, has had to face the fact that the man whose theory of literature he advanced was an anti-Semite and a Nazi in Belgium in World War II. In a long article in the March 7, 1988, New Republic, Hartman tries to come to terms with this revelation. In doing so, he points out what is at stake in defending the integrity of language, which De Man’s “Deconstruction” put under assault.
Well, he did not exactly face it. He evaded it, explained it away, gave excuses for it, trivialized it, and above all, obfuscated it. Hartman used every trick of the trade to shift attention away from a fact he wishes would go away: that his teacher, colleague, and friend hated Jews and was a Nazi.
Instead of asking how Deconstruction forms a comfortable match with Nazism, Hartman takes for granted that it does not. Hence he evades the critical issue. It is like addressing the relationship between the Gulag and communism by assuming, at the outset, that there is none.
The story is simple. Hartman’s clever telling of it makes it much more complicated. From the fall of Belgium in 1940, Paul de Man wrote pro-Nazi articles.
According to Hartman, he “followed the Nazi line in many respects.” De Man argued that Jews “do not have a significant influence on contemporary literature . . . that the ability of Western intellectuals to safeguard so representative a cultural domain as literature from Jewish influence is comforting.”
Hartman: “De Man leaves it unclear whether it is comforting because Jewishness itself is unhealthy or because any invasion of Western civilization by a foreign force . . . would reflect badly on its vitality.”
De Man would “envisage the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe.”
Hartman: “This is not vulgar anti-Semitic writing, not by the terrible standards of the day.”
In Hartman’s defense I give his next sentence: “But the fact remains that, however polished de Man’s formulations are, they show all the marks . . . of identifying Jews as an alien and unhealthy presence in Western civilization.” Hartman further points out that at this time, in light of what was going on, De Man’s article is more “than a theoretical expression of anti-Semitism.”
But Hartman minimizes and trivializes De Man’s Nazism and anti-Semitism. This he does even while saying the right words, such as I have quoted, to create the impression that he does not. And how are we to interpret the following: “But I cannot ignore these expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment, even if they remained polite, even if they were limited to suave cultural essays and never spilled over into exhortatory rhetoric or demagoguery.“
Hartman concedes, “The discovery of these early articles must make a difference in the way we read the later de Man.” Hartman points out that De Man “did not address his past. We do not have his thoughts. Did he avoid confession . . . and instead work out his totalitarian temptation in a purely intellectual and impersonal manner?”
Hartman rejects any relationship between Deconstruction and the Nazism and anti-Semitism of its principal intellect. But the emphasis of Deconstruction is on “the indeterminacy of meaning.” That position is seen by some literary critics to be amoral, indeed a statement that there are no rules at all, not in literature, not anywhere else. It is an ethic that would admirably serve an unrepentant Nazi, living out his life among Jews such as Hartman. So Hartman insists, over and over again, “The probity of the Paul de Man we knew and his powerful analytic talent must remain our focus. What is neglected by de Man’s critics, who are in danger of reducing all to biography again, is the intellectual power of his later work.” But why not take the man’s biography into account? Do ideas live in a vacuum? Or are they part of the whole person?
To me, there really are absolutes in life and in language: God made the world, God gave the Torah, “it has been told you, humanity, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you,” “you shall not murder,” “you shall not bear false witness.” These and other foundations of the moral conduct of civilization stand firm. And up is not down, west is not east, white is not black, either.
And for us Jews, the commanding voice of Auschwitz sets forth this commandment: that anti-Semitism is never to be trivialized. It is not to be excused because “so many did it,” Hartman’s frightening conclusion: “We can accuse de Man of lacking foresight or civil courage or of underestimating the ruthlessness of the Nazi regime. . . . De Man’s ‘dirty secret’ was the dirty secret of a good part of civilized Europe.”
Only a literary theory that relativizes and “contextualizes” language out of all meaning can permit Hartman the self-serving luxury of separating De Man’s thought from his life, allowing him to conclude that: “De Man’s critique of every tendency to totalize literature or language, to see unity where there is no unity, looks like a belated, but still powerful, act of conscience.” No Jew can admire Hartman for writing this way about a vicious anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator. And no person who cares for the integrity of language—the foundation of civilization—can admire Hartman’s use of language to defend his friend, colleague, and teacher, now revealed to be the Waldheim of academia.
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