So Paul de Man was a fraud and there’s more to literature than lit theory: thanks a lot, postmodernism

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In year ten, my English teacher told me about deconstruction. Or at least he tried to; I didn’t get it. He said I should study at Murdoch – they taught lit theory. It was the mid-nineties. I followed his advice a few years later, and found myself plunged into the epistemological crisis of postmodernism. ‘Was there a meaning in this text?’ My lecturers said there were many; it depended on the reader. (There’s some truth in that, as far as it goes.) I spent a year or two quixotically fighting for the idea of a literary canon, and siding with the one brave resistor, Professor Frodsham. After that, I learned to love postmodernism; I liked confounding the other Christians on campus by insisting it was the way forward.

It feels, looking back, that there truly was an impoverishment in my English major. The impoverishment was the divorce of literature from history, from the social and cultural and biographical backdrop from which works emerge.

It would seem today that the tide has turned on lit theory as the primary approach to literature. The new interest in reception history has reconnected the text to history, but now with a new interest in the readers of texts which postmodernism helped us find.

The new biography of the literary theorist, Paul De Man, is attracting much attention. A hero of my undergrad lecturers is now denounced as a fraud:

Barish, like others before her, proposes a link between his negation of history and his career of deception, between his denial of the continuity of the self and his suppression of his own past… between his insistence that the written or spoken word never tells anything about the intention of its originator and his assumption of a new identity. This is certainly plausible, but I would also like to suggest a different kind of continuity between de Man’s mode of operation as a literary theorist and his mode of operation as a con man. It has to do with his style. In his writing, abstruseness, bristling abstraction, and a disorienting use of terms make his essays often difficult to penetrate. This was part of the key to his success: to his American admirers, with their cultural inferiority complex, it seemed that if things were difficult to grasp, something profound was being said.

This final comment rings true for a number of the theorists I read. Being older now, I’m no longer bound to an absolute position on anything, even postmodernism. It has its important insights; but, of course, it wasn’t the final word. And sometimes it was the emperor’s new clothes. It excites me, now, to reconnect literature to history, to believe in the possibility of recovering the past, however imperfectly. And this is why my next book is to be a biography of a writer.

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4 thoughts on “So Paul de Man was a fraud and there’s more to literature than lit theory: thanks a lot, postmodernism

  1. My field is theology, so the idea that there is no meaning in a text seemed counter-intuitive from the start. That the reader brings their own concerns is relevant, and was insightful. Part of my own baggage, of course, was a “commitment” to the authoritative nature of the texts I was reading. I later learned that this commitment needed examination and justification. But the idea that the author writes without communicating and intending to communicate meaning of some sort borders on the absurd.

  2. I agree. However, I don’t think lit theorists would phrase it quite like you have; the author may intend certain things, but these are irretrievable and somewhat irrelevant. To the extent it captures the slipperiness of language and the dangers of trying to ‘read someone’s mind’ after the fact, it can be helpful – but as you say, it goes to absurd lengths.

  3. Surely, though, that is an exaggeration: I intended to communicate something in my comment to your post, and you seem to have correctly interpreted what I intended to say. To say that it is “irretrievable” and irrelevant is wrong-headed. Yes, the slipperiness of language is real, as anyone in a serious conversation can attest; mind-reading is irrelevant – I do not seek to read the author’s mind but to interpret their communication in accordance with what they wrote. Undoubtedly dangers and misconceptions abound; undoubtedly also, authors may aim to deceive; undoubtedly, too, readers can be naive, misinformed, overly-confident or ambitious in their claims. I imagine the lit theorists intended to communicate something themselves, although I have heard of some – you suggest De Man was one of these – who wrote in such a style as to avoid any direct communication. Most folk who write, however, are not lit theorists!

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