Paul de Man, 1919 to 1983, was the most influential part of a group called the “Yale School.” They revitalized American literary criticism by importing Continental theory and espousing deconstruction. He was born and schooled in Antwerp, Belgium. He wrote, 1940 to 1942, for a Belgian newspaper, Le Soir, then under German control. Some of his writings were met with shock, for they suggested that de Man had been complicit with Nazi policies. In particular, one article contained explicitly anti-Semitic statements, to the effect that European literature would not be diminished if there were no Jewish writers. His wartime writings became a focal point of debate during the late 1980s and early 1990s, which diminished his influence in literary theory.
He attended the graduate program in comparative literature at Harvard University, where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1960. He worked at Barb College, the Berlitz language school, Cornell University, University of Zurich, Johns Hopkins University, and Yale University. De Man makes the claim that “the bases for historical knowledge are not empirical facts but written texts, even these texts masquerade in the guise of wars and revolutions” (1363). For de Man, the working of language has priority over historical or other considerations. His essay, “Semiology and Rhetoric,” published in 1973, outlines his model of deconstructive reading, arguing that rhetoric and figural language undermine determinate interpretation and the texts become allegories of their own interpretive difficulties.
Using William Butler Yeat’s poem “Among Schoolchildren,” published in 1928, de Man demonstrates how meaning cannot be determined by grammar, but rather meaning is exceeded by the figural properties of language. For example, he focused on the last line, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” He surmised two different readings. The first is s a rhetorical question reinforcing the images of unity. The reader responds: we cannot know the dancer from the dance. The next question-culminates in an image of uncertainty. The reader responds: how can we not tell the difference between the dancer and the dance? Those questions yield “two entirely coherent but entirely incompatible readings,” and thus “the entire scheme set up by the first reading can be undermined, or deconstructed, in terms of the second” (1363). In this manner, de Man demonstrates how the poem’s rhetoric renders interpretation undecipherable. He refers to this as the “rhetorization of grammar,” which occurs when unreliable language is undermined by the rhetorical and figurative nature of grammar (1363).
Taking an example from Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” published between 1913 and 1927, de Man traces the sequence of figures in a passage describing the coolness of a room during summer, which seems linked and unified in “semi-automatic grammatical patterns” (1363). However, de Man argues that this link is deceptive and works only associatively. As he points out, a fly’s buzz is no more necessarily connected to summer than Henry Ford is connected to an automobile. Although he claims that the indeterminacy generated by figuration applies to all linguistic acts, he specifies that it is explicitly grounded in literature.
In a generalization, de Man believes that literature has become, “allegories of reading,” which offers a narrative of the problematic nature of language and interpretation (1363). One of de Man’s most influential moves was to reconsider the place of allegory. He addresses the place of the allegory, in his essay, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” published in 1969, as well as his most important work, Allegories of Reading, published in 1979. De Man stresses, “The deconstruction is not something we have added to the text but it constitutes the text in the first place” (1363). A reader does not deconstruct text, but rather they unravel the different methods language deconstructs its assertions. This distinction suggests that the impersonality of language and operation has moved beyond our control. Accordingly, grammar and rhetoric stand together in a “dyadic relationship” of established support (1369).
It is possible to move back and forth between grammar and rhetoric without complications. The rules of grammar for the speaker or text are likened to the rules of rhetoric for listener or reader. An act performed by a speaker or text, such as a warning, promise, utterance, or suggestion is congruent with the listener or reader, such as persuading, frightening, amusing, or calling to action. Since rhetoric is conceived as persuasion, an action upon others, there is continuity and reliance between grammar and rhetoric.
De Man’s work has drawn much criticism from traditionalist and other theorist within the academic circles, as well as those outside. He was charges with threatening the foundations of literary criticism because he radically questioned the possibility of meaning. In the 1980’s, de Man was pitted against leftist calls for attention to history, society, and politics. Although de Man’s influence waned after the 1980s, in part because of the discovery of his wartime writings and in part because of the resurgence of historical methods, he remains a pivotal figure in the assimilation of Continental theory, especially deconstruction.
In de Man’s affinity for close reading, and disdain for paraphrase, his leaning was toward the New Critics. However, he departed from the New Critics in key ways: in denying the determinate meaning that they assumed, in stressing allegory as a primary literary mode, and in investigating the theoretical bases of reading.
Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.