Literary and Critical Theory Paul de Man
by
Martin McQuillan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0023

Introduction

Paul de Man (b. 1919–d. 1983) was one of the most influential literary theorists of the second half of the 20th century. He is most commonly associated with the so-called Yale School of criticism, which included his colleagues J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, and Jacques Derrida. De Man spent his formative years in Belgium before immigrating to the United States after World War II in 1948. After some time working as a teacher of French, freelance writer, and in clerical jobs, he gained his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1960 with an audacious dissertation titled “Mallarmé, Yeats and the Post-Romantic Predicament.” He taught at Cornell University between 1960 and 1969. In the late 1960s he also held a post at the University of Zurich and from 1968 to 1970 he was a professor of humanities at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. He then moved to Yale, where in 1979 he was made Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature and French. During his life de Man published two groundbreaking books, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1971, revised edition 1983) and Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (1979). The collaboration and friendship of the Yale School is captured in the co-edited collection Deconstruction and Criticism (1979). Other volumes of de Man’s essays were published after his untimely death from cancer in 1983. The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984) and Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminar and Other Papers (1993) chart his substantial contribution to the theoretical study of European romanticism. The Resistance to Theory (1986) and Aesthetic Ideology (1996) contain some of de Man’s major essays on literary theory and some of his most powerful readings of Romantic and Modernist literature. The volume Critical Writings, 1953–1978, published in 1989, collects together most of de Man’s pre-Yale criticism, charting his intellectual formation in the United States. In 1987 while under taking doctoral research at the University of Leuven, the scholar Ortwin de Graef rediscovered de Man’s writing as a young journalist during his time in occupied Belgium. De Man had written hundreds of articles in French and Flemish for several newspapers between 1941 and 1942. The discovery caused an immediate sensation, known as the de Man affair, when a number of the articles were deemed to be sympathetic to the occupying power. One in particular, “The Jews in Contemporary Literature,” from March 1941, was seen to be explicitly anti-Semitic in tone. It has taken over two decades for de Man’s theoretical reputation to begin to recover from this episode. More recently, his Harvard PhD has been published as The Post-romantic Predicament (2012) and the volume The Paul de Man Notebooks appeared in 2014. Other publications based on de Man’s unpublished writing held in the Critical Theory Archive at the University of California, Irvine, have been made available online. Today de Man’s understanding of figurative language and materiality is being rediscovered as an indispensable tool in the deconstruction of ideology and onto-theology.

Primary Texts

De Man’s writing constitutes a sustained contribution to the understanding of the European romantic and modernist traditions. It also considers theoretical questions of language, the rhetoric of criticism, aesthetics, materiality, and ideology. Blindness and Insight and Allegories of Reading were the only full monograph studies published by de Man during his lifetime. However, he left notes and plans for the assembly of other volumes from his many published essays. Blindness and Insight pioneered an approach to reading the language used in critical writing itself, suggesting that critical texts are paradoxically most blind concerning the topics about which they aim to be most insightful. De Man developed this approach in Allegories of Reading into a wider understanding of how language works in general and of how texts continually create and undo the meanings they posit, especially in the second half of the book, which is a reading of several exemplary works by Jean Jacques Rousseau.

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