Paul De Man is a celebrated literary theorist known for his deconstructive interpretations on the art of reading. He is notorious for leanings towards the Yale school of deconstruction. His fame became tainted when it was found out that the journals written for a newspaper during the Second World War showed traces of anti-Semitism. In this article I would like to expand some of his thoughts which I have read from an introductory text on Paul De Man.
Paul De Man is primarily an architect of the Philosophy of reading, implied as a process of deconstruction. I would like to introduce his thoughts in a microscopic view in this paragraph and then proceed to examine them macroscopically. In a reading process his introduces the term ‘Blindness and Insight’. Then he proceeds to analyze the text whether it has center of meaning. Again he goes on to say: Literature is a problem of reading. There are figural conceptions of language making a chain of reference to meanings. Readability is the possibility of placing meaning. Reading is the interpretation of figurative language. Criticism is a metaphor for reading. Allegory is the narrative of reading. While reading, one comes to identify the gap between the reference and the referent. Literalism is a conceptuality of reading. In resistance to theory, theory is described as an approach to texts. Theory is a self deconstructive trope. Meta-language of texts exists as a phenomenological entity. There is disfiguration and defacement in autobiography. In Aesthetic ideology, ideology is seen as a textual problem. History and politics are tropes. Meaning resides in the made.
‘Blindness and Insight’ are the terms used by De Man and refers to act of reading where every reading is a misreading. Through misreading the reader or the critic generates an insight. This is very true when we encounter the word: Interpretation. Interpretation in philosophical etymology suggests a plurality. Meaning is created through interpretation. For example let’s take the Marxian concept of dialectical materialism. For the bourgeoisie it would mean affluence and gratification and for the proletariat it would mean a struggle for rights and a class struggle against materialist poverty. But dialectical materialism in its root sense refers to being rooted to matter, materialism and productive forces. Further interpretation occurs through an analysis which according to Man’s language occurs through a misreading and an insight.
Analyzing the text as the center of meaning goes back to the question of an author and a creation. I would like to use Roland Barthes phrase: ‘the author is dead’. The reader has to activate the process of meaning. For example: Dead roses founded in depressed clusters can mean a sexual connotation or a meaning of mental depression. The text is a productive democracy to render meanings. The interpretation of tropes is subjective and multiple in conceptuality.
Literature as a problem of reading refers to the generation of multiple interpretative codes. For example we can look at Trump’s Xenophobia in political context of being unable to tolerate the racial other. Trump’s misogynist statements can be psychoanalytically viewed as his own coming to terms with the conflict of his own oedipal syndrome. Literature is problematic when it comes to an interpretative context.
Figural conceptions of language making a chain of reference to meanings refer to a process where tropes become declarative meanings in the language making process. Let’s look at a political metaphor the Bay of Pigs incident. The Bay of Pigs incident refers to situation of heightened tension between Cuba and America during the cold war era with Cuban placing of Soviet missiles. The fiasco fizzled out with subtle diplomacy on both sides. A simple metaphoric phrase like the Bay of Pigs makes a reference to a chain of meanings.
Criticism as a metaphor for reading implies that every reading becomes metaphoric as a substitution of language. Let’s look at the Binary divide of language. The philosopher Derrida has said that there is a trace inherent in language. Trace refers to the absence of the presence in language. Let’s look at theology as an example. When God is spoken the Devil is the binary lack of language. God becomes the center the overwhelming presence. The lack as the Devil manifests itself as the trace of the language. God and the Devil become metaphoric manifestations of presence and absence as the traces of language.
Allegory as a narrative of reading refers to the content of the text put in a rhetorical mode of an allegory. Now what is an allegory? An allegory is an extended metaphor. For example the dove represents peace is an allegory. How can readings become allegorical? Let me use an illustrative example. In the book ‘Writing and Difference’ by Derrida, speech is referred to as the garden and writing as the desert. This connotation carries in it Biblical traces of depiction and that being speech as a privileged signifier and writing as a marginalized signified. As an allegory this statement traces its roots of speech to the Garden of Eden and writing, to the period of the fall.
Reading refers to tracing the gap between the reference and the referent. The reference is what is referred to and the referent is content that is being said about. De Man says that there is a gap between the reference and the referent. Let’s use an illustrative example. Before the First World War, the Balkans became the powder keg of Europe. The language that is used here is figurative. Powder keg refers to the region as being a troubled spot. Though a figurative connection is made between Balkans and the powder keg the connection according to De Man exists as a gap. It is the ability of reading to trace such gaps that exist in texts.
Literalism as conceptuality of reading refers to the fact of the semantics of concept: denoted and connoted. Let’s take the example: the roots of a metaphor are green. Behind the literal language there lies a wealth of concepts, like fecundity, abundance and prosperity. From the denoted literalism, there’s a connoted concept of a metaphor being subject to the lushness of the creative. Literalism is the bare meaning of the denoted and from there meaning transcends to a process of trans-figuration.
In resistance to theory: De Man refers to theory as being an approach to the reading of texts. Texts can be read theoretically and some of the approaches are New Criticism, Psychoanalysis, Existentialism and Deconstruction. Deconstruction propounds the view that the stability of meaning in a text depends on false consistencies. The text deconstructs itself to meaning when being read. Meaning resides in a Binary divide. For example let’s take the concept of enlightenment. Enlightenment is a period when people began to become scientific and rational leaving the roots of theology. The philosopher Foucault says that even during the enlightenment Madness as a concept was marginalized. The concept of Mad as being differently endowed began to have its genesis only in recent times. Foucault’s text Madness and Civilization is a text that critiques the approaches to madness and is a text that is a resistance to theory.
Meta-language exists as a phenomenological entity. What is meta-language? It is the secondary language, the language which forms the symbolism of meaning. Meta-language is an existential entity and becomes the subject of consciousness of the language. Tropes become the meta-language of texts. For example books are lying like a corpse is a simile that suggests that books are unread. There is a primary meaning and a secondary meaning. The primary meaning conveys only the semantics of meaning where as the secondary meaning conveys the symbolism of meaning. Meta-language as phenomenological entity becomes a vehicle of symbolism for the consciousness of language.
There is disfiguration and defacement in autobiography refers to fact that texts which are autobiographical tend to the intentional consciousness of the author trying to be fictional. The realism of autobiographical life is subverted and the text becomes an explication of fiction. Let’s look at the diaries of Salvador Dali. ‘Each day I wake up in the morning and get the intense gratification that I am Salvador Dali.’ The diaries of Salvador Dali are egotistical to the core and become fictional codes of magnificence. So is the case with the motor cycle diaries of Che Guevara. There is a distortion of the real personality and the sublimation to eloquence of an art.
In aesthetic ideology, ideology is seen as a textual problem. All artifacts of culture are ideological and become regimes which subject texts to codes of appropriation. Let’s take the example of the newly created 2000 Rupees of India. In it is a pictorial depiction of the space ship to Mars, Mangalyaan. The picture satisfies the realism of an aesthetic portrayal as well as wants to convey to the world India’s scientific prowess, its technological capability and political ego. The reading of aesthetic value of texts ideologically is thus a textual problem.
It is difficult to agree with Man that History and Politics are mere tropes. It would be more appropriate to say History and Politics can be converted into the language of tropes. How can we say that the holocaust is a trope? It becomes a trope when we say that Holocaust is the result of a barbaric fang. How can we say that Indian Independence from British colonization is a trope? We can utilize a trope by saying that Indian Independence is History’s bouquet. Historical and political situations can be made into the language of tropes.