Paul de Man, Heidegger, and our fascination with the past

Read the recent New Yorker article on Paul de Man. Also reading Phillip Whalen’s 1967 novel You Didn’t Even Try in preparation for writing about it for an anthology on poet’s novels that Laynie Brown is doing… in which the main character Ken (who sounds a lot like Phil) is always complaining about how everyone is getting all their stupid ideas from the New Yorker…..

The question I am asking myself today is, why am I (and I suppose many other loyal readers of the New Yorker) so interested in the past—why is the dim dark past always so fascinating? Why would I want to know the details of Paul de Man’s obscure history in Europe before he became a literary lion at Yale? Why should I care?

I guess the past is interesting exactly because it’s a mystery. Uncovering new facts and new perspectives toward clarifying what will essentially remain unknown (the past) is a quixotic pursuit that is fascinating and compelling—all the more so given that we all instinctively know that the quest for the past is a quest for ourselves. Our own pasts are mysteries to us. We would like to know what actually happened to us. We understand that when we go all the way back to the beginning of what we think of as our past—the moment of our birth—we inevitably need to go back further: any past is my past. So the past is personal. That’s why I can’t stop paying attention to it.  I notice my own fascination with the period just before my birth—the music, art, etc of that period. That’s why de Man interests me.

In his case there’s something else too to discover about myself or any of us: how does the fact that a person is a scoundrel, a Nazi, a murderer, a liar, rapist, alcoholic, wife-beater, or whatever, influence our sense of the value of that person’s intellectual work? Heidegger, another case in point. I have never read de Man but have read Heidegger, and his past (which I have also read about) doesn’t diminish for me the value of his work, which I can read and make something out of that I can use. This use is my affair, not Heidegger’s.  On the other hand, his conduct does matter to me. He can’t be my intellectual hero. Everything I take from him comes filtered through the lens of who he was and what he did. Once I know that, it becomes, for me, part of the work—and Ifeel like I can see the effects of all that in the work. Doesn’t mean I don’t read the work, orthat I automatically condemn it; only that I read it differently. So yes, it does matter. What and how a person lives does influence my reception of his or her text. The concept that a text has an autonomous existence, with no reference to the life of the person who wrote it, doesn’t hold up. Texts do have authors, however protean and hard to pin down those authors might be. Writing this or that can’t be an excuse for anyone’s life! And a text will change when new facts about the author’s life come to light, and since no life in the past is ever finished—new facts will forever come to light, or new takes on old facts—the text is also never finished.