reading allegories



Commentary on Paul de Man's book.

Allegories of Reading was published in the USA in 1979, trying to go beyond the genetic principles of literary history. When modernity was still being discussed elsewhere, declared dead by the “post-utopian”, the book was included in an anti-metaphysical and non-teleological aspect of the “modern”, displacing Hegel’s passage: “The result is nothing but the same as the beginning, because the beginning is the end”.

Like Lacan, who claims that the grammar of the rhetoric of the unconscious is untouchable, De Man proposed literary criticism as a theory of performative acts of reading. Nietzschean, it may still be untimely here, because the rarefaction to which it subjects the categories of the continuum, denaturalizing them while displacing the entire field of letters and philosophy, is polemically non-teleological.

One may not agree with his postulation of the radical contingency of meaning, but one must recognize the rigor of nominalism that makes his text subtly blast the common sense of donors of canned humanist conscience, who are likely to classify him as pedantic or nihilist. Or much worse.

In his youth, before being professor of literature at Harvard, Cornell, Johns Hopkins and becoming a professor at Yale, De Man adhered to Nazism. With the slogan “Nietzsche Nazi” – futile as the one that blames Marx for Stalinism – opponents of De Man claimed that his deconstruction is an irrationalism complementary to his Nazism. Another deconstructor, Jacques Derrida, defended him from this kind of accusation and dedicated a book to him.

Nietzsche's assertion that there is no Origin (origin or beginning), but only invention (invention) is the presupposition of his critique. The origin, purpose and meaning of history would be contingent fictions verifiable by literature, since, of all discursive practices, it is the only one that explicitly affirms its own character as an artifice that produces fictitious effects. With Nietzsche, De Man proposes that literature is true precisely because it assumes that it is appearance; therefore, it constitutes it as the theoretical field of a heuristic, an art of invention, in which it tests the contingent relations of meaning.

Thus, the title “Allegories of Reading” means at least three things: the literary metaphors read in the texts, the philosophical metaphors with which he reads the texts and the critical metaphors resulting from the intersection of the others. As it does not postulate any foundation, it presupposes that language thinks itself anonymously in discourses, in which it leaves displaced traces of an untallable meaning. The postulation of the contingency of meaning implies another, also controversial, that affects philosophy, given as a literary genre whose discourse would be nothing more than fiction with pretensions to the truth. Asking: “What's the Difference?”, the sophistic essays of “Allegories” constitute philosophy as an infinite reflection on its own destruction by literature.

The pun with the term is valid for De Man Bunker, “masker”, which he applies to Nietzsche and Derrida, “arch-unmaskers”. Reading works by Rilke, Proust, Nietzsche and Rousseau, he analyzes the rhetoric of the tropes and figures that order them. Simultaneously, he disorganizes his classification as “philosophy” and “literature”: Rilke and Proust are “philosophical”, just as Nietzsche and Rousseau are “literary”, since they all organize their speeches rhetorically.

Like the Nietzsche of the essay “Rhetoric of Tropes”, De Man refuses to understand “rhetoric” in the Platonically pejorative sense of “speech of opinion” or in the vulgar sense of “oratory” and “persuasive eloquence”. As he understands that it is the metaphor that structures the language, he claims that all discourse is rhetorical, including the philosophical one.

“Grammar” is the name for the “corpus” of univocally logical sentences that would allow building systems of fixed definitions, and asking the theoretical question about the difference between philosophy and rhetoric. De Man argues, however, that the statement that makes it may simultaneously be denying the very possibility of making it.

Any grammatical sentence becomes a rhetorical statement, not because it opposes a figurative meaning, “second”, to another literal one, “first”, but because it is impossible to decide which one prevails in usages. Therefore, the “corpus” of metaprescriptive sentences of “grammatical” systems constituted as logically univocal, which underlie representation, hermeneutics and genetic history, is also understood as the effect of a rhetorical device. Consequently, De Man proposes that the structuralist grammars of literary rhetoric made in the 60s-70s reduced literary utterances, which are fictitiously performative acts of undecidable meaning, to a decontextualized syntax of constative sentences (“Semiology and Rhetoric”).

If the discourse on rhetoric is also rhetorical, the grammatical definition of the meaning of literary and philosophical texts is metaphor. Thus, the critical operation itself is undecidable: grammaticalizing De Man, reading his criticism as a literal sense, metaphorically duplicates his rhetoric. Thus, the value and meaning of its operation are only defined when they are displaced and always displaced when defined: criticism is a “suspensive ignorance”.

It is not negativity, transformation and overcoming of the present. It does not advance towards the utopia of the future which, according to the genetic conception, appears partially (re)veiled in the representation as the first sense of original unity. It does not postulate the temporal continuum, consciousness, ideology and dialectic, since every end contained in the beginning, or teleology, is a mere contingency or the product of a singular perspective.

To the extent that the truth of literature is to affirm itself as the effect that highlights the rhetorical processes of (dis)assembly of literary, philosophical and critical fiction, Proust, Rilke, Nietzsche and Rousseau would demonstrate that the power of fiction is to take a question to its limits, maintaining two antagonistic points of view about it, as in the “double arguments” of the sophists. Literature is the only theoretical practice in which two opposing assertions are simultaneously maintained and deconstructed, meaning being realized as a mere linguistic differential.

For example, in the rhetorical critique of the rhetoric of Rilke's poetry, De Man claims that the poet's conception of the figure eliminates all pretense to truth. His themes seduce critics through the promise of transcendence of the human condition in the neutral immanence of things, but they are only poetically realized when Rilke renounces extratextual authority, dissolving the same promise through the perspective of lies. The promise of truth in his poetry only becomes fully intelligible, finally, when it is demonstrated that his enunciation theatricalizes the fraud of his recognition for the addressee.

in the passage of Du Côté by Chez Swann, in which Marcel speaks of the “obscure clarity” of the room where he reads, the opposition of “interior/exterior” is given as a rhetorical device that allegorizes the nature of tropes and figures. Dealing with “obscure clarity”, Proust would metaphorically comment on the powers of the very metaphor that organizes the novel, proposing it as superior to metonymy. However, the demonstration of such superiority has a metonymic structure, because it moves like a linear chain of words. Like Rilkian truth, the superiority of the Proustian metaphor dissolves in the very act that affirms it.

If you thought before you spoke, says Alice, nobody would ever say anything. Here, on the contrary, before any mouth opens, all language is thought performatively, in a Heideggerian echo that makes it proliferate. “Why being and not nothing at all?” asks the deconstructor Paul de Bunker allegorically, who in his youth was a man of Bunker.

*John Adolfo Hansen is a retired senior professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Sixteenth-century sharpnesses – Collected work, vol 1 (Edusp).


Paul deMan. reading allegories. Translation: Lenita R. Esteves. Rio de Janeiro, Imago, 344 pages.

Originally published on Journal of Reviews / Folha de S. Paulo, in April 1997.


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